The mystery of Prime Minister's Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund (PM CARES Fund) and the attempts by everyone in the Union government to keep all information about it secret makes mockery of transparency in public life. Take, for example, the fact that PM CARES Fund is listed as a public charitable trust, although the prime minister (PM) in his official capacity is the ex-officio chief of the board of trustees, which includes Union ministers of defence, home affairs and finance, who are ex-officio trustees of the fund. The defence ministry website seeks donations for this Fund and, yet, says it does not have any information about the Fund.
Pune-based Right to Information (RTI) activist Sanjay Shirodkar had filed the application seeking information available on records about the PM CARES Fund from the ministry of defence and if the ministry has laid any paper before the Rajya Sabha.
In response, Pawan Kumar, under secretary and coordinator for RTI in the defence ministry told Mr Shirodkar on 14 December 2020 "...information sought by you vide your RTI application regarding PM CARES Fund is not available in the ministry."
Responding to another RTI application on 24 December 2020, Arvind Kumar, under secretary and central public information officer (CPIO) says, "...no paper has been laid on the table of the House (Rajya Sabha) relating to regarding PM CARES Fund by the ministry of defence till date."
As Moneylife had reported, social media, several organisations and media continue to raise questions about the structure, accountability and transparency of the PM CARES Fund which behaves like a private entity.
This private entity, with the PM as chairman and other Union ministers as ex-officio members was given the .gov.in domain that is reserved for government authorities.
Responding to an appeal filed by Commodore Lokesh Batra (retd) under the RTI Act, the National Informatics Centre (NIC), which manages the .gov.in domains, says, "...the domain pmcares.gov.in was allotted to PMO (apex body) complying with the 'guidelines for allocation of registration at the third level under .gov.in domain zone dated 23 October 2019', issued by the internet governance division, ministry of electronics and information technology (MeitY)."
Not only the gov.in domain name, almost every website of the Union government and its departments has banners seeking donations for the PM CARES Fund as if this is the equivalent of the Prime Minister's National Relief Fund (PMNRF). For the record, the PMNRF is managed by the PM himself and a joint secretary in the PM's Office (PMO) administers the Fund with help from a director level officer, on an honorary basis.
Copyright for both the websites of PM CARES Fund and PMNRF rests with the PMO.
The resources of the PMNRF are utilised primarily to render immediate relief to families of those killed in natural calamities like floods, cyclones and earthquakes and to the victims of the major accidents and riots. Assistance from PMNRF is also rendered to partially defray the expenses for medical treatment like heart surgeries, kidney transplantation, cancer treatment and acid attack. The Fund consists entirely of public contributions and does not get any Budgetary support.
PM CARES Fund, on the other hand, is set up with the primary objective of dealing with any kind of emergency or distress situation, like posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and to provide relief to the affected.
The PMNRF only accepts voluntary contributions by individuals and institutions. Contributions flowing out of Budgetary sources or from the balance sheets of the public sector undertakings are not accepted by the PMNRF.
PM CARES Fund, however, has no such limitations. It accepts funds from anyone and everyone, including, but not limited to, from corporate social responsibility (CSR) expenditure of companies and foreigners.
Further, the deed protects identity of those who have contributed towards PM CARES Fund.
It says, "...the Trust shall fully respect and will not allow any invasion of the privacy of the contributor/s by divulging their names, addresses and/or other details and the details regarding their contributions to anyone except to the tax authorities, while making the full and true disclosures, which will be made to the tax authorities as and when required by such authorities or required under the relevant taxing statute." (Read: PM CARES Fund: Public or Private Trust? While Fully Protecting Trustees
Essentially, PM CARES, which uses everything government, including domain, official address, is a private fund to escape the severe restrictions imposed on public charitable trusts which, in the past few months, stepped forward to offer COVID relief, until the government machinery could get going.