A lot of ink has been spilled on the controversial issue of the Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations (PM CARES) Fund, including on the debate on whether it is a public authority at all. However, its audit statement uploaded on the website is full of discrepancies that contradict the government’s official press releases and replies under the Right to Information (RTI) Act.
RTI activist commodore (Cmde) Lokesh Batra, who has been pursuing this issue through a series of RTI applications seeking information on the expenditure and disbursal of ventilators, oxygen plants and procurement of vaccines, states: “Besides the discrepancies, there are shockingly no details of financial activities, which are recorded under the financial statement in any of the audit reports. Although the audit report includes ‘Accompanying notes to Financial Statement -1 to 10 pages’, nothing is there. Why? This amounts to PM CARES Fund’s incomplete audit report placed in the public domain. This is indeed strange.”
Further, a press release issued by the press information bureau (PIB) on 13 May 2020, states: “The PM CARES (Fund Trust today decided to allocate Rs3,100 crore for a fight against COVID-19 for various expenditures of the pandemic emergencies.’’
However, says Cmde Batra, the audit report under these headings do not match the information disseminated to citizens through such press releases or RTI replies.
The PIB press release states: “Out of the total allocation of Rs3,100 crore, 50,000 made-in-India ventilators will be purchased from PM CARES Fund at the cost of approximately Rs2,000 crore. These ventilators will be provided to the government-run COVID hospitals in all states and Union territories (UTs), for better treatment of the critical COVID-19 cases.”
Regarding the Rs2,000 crore allotted for ventilators, Cmde Batra states:
• PIB report: Ventilators to government hospitals run by the Union, state and UTs (50,000 ‘made in India’ ventilators)
• Amount Disbursed as shown in the audit is: Rs13,11,33,84,112 (Rs1,311 crore). Cmde Batra says this sends the wrong message that the cost of 50,000 ‘made in India’ ventilators, is Rs1,311 crore odd, while the PIB release mentions Rs2,000 crore allotted for 50,000 ventilators from PM CARES Fund.
• As per the ministry of health and family welfare (MoHFW)’s RTI Response of 9 July 2021, the total amount of 50,000 ventilators is Rs2,147.20 crore, the amount released being, Rs1,497.34 crore to Bharat Electronics Ltd and Rs35.36 crore to HLL Lifecare Ltd.
COVID Vaccine Issue
• As per the audit statement: For procurement of 6.6 crore doses of COVID-19 vaccine, the disbursal amount is : Rs13,92,82,50,000 (about Rs1,393 crore)
• As per the RTI response - The procurement cost of 6.6 crore doses of COVID -19 vaccine - works out to be Rs1,485.74 crore.
Cmde Batra says, “Initially, the government of India through PM CARES Fund was procuring the COVID-19 vaccines, Covishield manufactured by Serum Institute of India (procured 5.6 crore doses) at the unit cost of Rs210 including taxes (Rs200 + 5% GST) and Covaxin manufactured by Bharat Biotech International Ltd (procured one crore doses) at the unit cost of Rs309.75 including taxes (Rs295 + 5% GST). However, the government, through the Union budget, is procuring the COVID-19 vaccines (Covishield 10 crore doses and Covaxin 2 crore doses) at the unit cost of Rs157.50, including taxes (Rs150 + 5% GST). It must be noted here that the procurement of COVID-19 vaccine is an ongoing process.”
Refund from NDMA
The audit statement from PM CARES FUND shows, “Refund of unspent balance with interest from NDMA: Rs25,03,122.”
Cmde Batra says, “What is the NDMA Fund? Is it a public fund or a voluntarily created fund? Why is the unspent balance with interest from NDMA transferred to PM-CARES Fund? Is there any notification in this regard? How this refund has seeped into the audit report is a big mystery.”
Number of PSA Plants
As per the audit statement, “Installation of and operationalisation of 162 pressure swing absorption (PSA) plants inside public health facilities: Amount disbursed is Rs2,01,58.785 (Rs201 crore odd).”
As per the RTI reply of 15 June 2021 from MoHFW, “As on 6 June 2021, out of Rs201.56 crore received, which includes maintenance cost of equipment of Rs54.96 crore. So out of the remaining Rs141.75 crore, Rs63.86 CR. (approx.) have been spent.”
New Vaccine Testing Facilities
As per the audit report, “funding of two independent institute laboratories under the department of biotechnology for up-gradation as Central Drug Laboratory (CDL) for test and release of the batches of COVID-19 vaccine, the disbursal amount is Rs20,41,60,000 (Rs20 crore odd).”
Cmde Batra says, “It is worth recalling that on 13 May 2020, the PIB release on the subject ‘PM CARES Fund Trust’ had stated that ‘to support the COVID-19 vaccine designers and developers, an amount of Rs100 crore will be given from the PM CARES Fund as a helping hand to catalyse vaccine development, which will be utilised under the supervision of the principal scientific advisor’. It, therefore, raises the big question ‘was the DBT bypassed while allotting PM CARES Fund to two of the autonomous institute laboratories’ under the department?”
Such is the mess of a public fund that was much respected by citizens and hundreds of government offices and institutions that donated to the cause besides private organisations!
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife. She is also the convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting, which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”.)