Even while the government is tightening regulation, compliance and reporting requirements for all trusts and non-government organisations (NGOs), the newly formed PM CARES Fund is listed as a private trust, although the prime minister (PM) in his official capacity is the ex-officio chief of the board of trustees. This has led to a furore on social media, with several organisations and media organisations raising questions about structure, accountability and transparency.
The trust deed as shared
by the Prime Minister's Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund (PM CARES Fund) alleviates any direct responsibility on the trustees. It also hides several important details citing 'fiduciary relationship' or 'privacy of third party'.
While making the prime minister as chairman of the board of trustees, the deed also tries to distance itself from oversight and scrutiny by most government agencies, it is also out of the purview of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, even after collecting enormous funds by making it eligible for funding under corporate social responsibility (CSR).
For example, it says, "This Trust is not created by or under the Constitution of India or by any law made by the Parliament or by any State Legislature. This Trust is neither intended to be or is in fact owned, controlled or substantial financed by any government or any instrumentality of the government. There is no control of either the central government or any state government/s either direct or indirect in functioning of the Trust in any manner whatsoever."
"The composition of the board of trustees consisting of holders of public office ex-officio is merely for administrative convenience and for smooth succession to the trusteeship and is neither intended to be nor in fact result in to any governmental control in the functioning of the trust in any manner whatsoever," the deed says.
If as per the deed, the PM CARES Fund is, indeed, a private trust, then how has it been using the official emblem as well as the gov.in domain of the Indian government? Or in other words, can other private trusts also use the emblem or gov.in domain like the PM CARES Fund?
The deed is registered on 27 March 2020 at New Delhi. As per the deed, the PM is ex-officio chairman of PM CARES Fund, while Union ministers of defence, home affairs and finance, are ex-officio trustees of the fund.
The PM as chairman has power to nominate three trustees to the board who would be eminent persons in the field of research, health, science, social work, law, public administration and philanthropy. Any person appointed a Trustee will act in a pro bono capacity.
It also clarifies that fund consists entirely of voluntary contributions from individuals and organisations and does not get any budgetary support. 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."
In his post on Facebook
, RTI activist Saket Gokhale also draws attention to investments of the Trust. He says, " PM CARES Fund trust deed says it can invest the fund money wherever it wants & the trustees won’t be held liable for any losses.”
Trustees of PM CARES Fund will not be held responsible for anything, since the trust says it will take care of this. "The Trust shall indemnify each of the trustees from and against any claims, costs, taxes and demands arising out of payments made by them or liabilities incurred by them to third parties or government authorities in the performance or discharge by them of their duties done in good faith and as per the provisions contained therein," the deed says under clause 16.1.
Essentially, PM CARES 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.