On September 3, Commodore Lokesh K Batra (retired), a crusader for transparency in government functioning, filed a Right to Information (RTI) petition with the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (Meity) seeking information on the legal provisions under which the website of the PM Cares Fund, (Prime Minister’s Civil Assistance and Emergency Relief Fund) a public charitable trust, was registered under the gov.in domain.
On October 8, Batra got a response from the National Informatics Centre (NIC), making it amply clear that the fund comes under the RTI law. Incidentally, On October 12, the Right to Information Act in India turns 15 years old.
The retired Navy officer, who dislikes being called an ‘activist’, says his RTI petition sought to know how the trust was considered eligible for this domain, and sought documents, including file notings, from the government secretary concerned in this regard.
Meity on September 8 transferred the request to NIC, and a response was received on October 8.
The Public Information Officer of the NIC, the authorised registrar for the gov.in domain, stated in his response: “The Pmcares.gov.in has been given to Hon'ble Prime Minister's office (Apex body) with the compliance of “Guidelines for allocation of registration at the third level under .GOV.In domain zone dates 23/10/2019” by Internet Governance Division, Ministry of electronics and Information Technology.” (sic)
Under guidelines issued by the government for the grant of this domain on October 23 last year, only apex offices, like that of the President of India or the Prime Minister, ministries and departments of government, state governments and judicial bodies were allowed to be registered under this domain.
The guidelines make it amply clear that only bodies created by law and attached to the institutions of the government of India are allowed such registration. By accepting that this is the provision under which the PM Cares website was registered under gov.in, the government has now virtually admitted that the fund also comes under RTI.
Commodore Batra said he was surprised by this response. “I had thought that the provision for exceptions in the guidelines of last year would be invoked,” he said.
The guidelines document states: “An exception to the above guidelines could be considered and decided by the Secretary/MeitY on receipt of such requests from the Secretary concerned as provided for in para 2.1.”
PM Cares was set up on March 28, days after the whole country was locked down in a failed attempt to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. Donations to the fund enjoy complete exemption from tax. The Prime Minister is the ex-officio chairman of the trust, and the Union defence, home and finance ministers are ex-officio trustees. The prime minister is empowered to nominate three “eminent” people to the trust.
Two months after the trust was set up, IndiaSpend website reported that over Rs 9,000 crore had been deposited in the trust.
According to a report in the Indian Express, based on RTI responses by 38 public sector undertakings, until August 31, 2020, these had contributed Rs 2,105.38 crore form their budget allocations in 2019-20 and 2020-21 to the PM Cares fund.
However, information on the amount spent and other details have not been shared with the public – the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), responding to a RTI petition by an applicant, Vikrant Togad, had said PM Cares is not a public institution, and so does not fall under the RTI Act.
The PMO has also argued that since it is a public charitable trust that receives “voluntary donations” and no government support, no audit by the Comptroller and Auditor General was required.
The Opposition, however, has argued that the trust uses the name of the office of the Prime Minister of India, and should conduct its affairs with greater transparency.
Transparency campaigners also wonder at the speed with which decisions regarding the trust were made – hours after it was set up, a notification was issued allowing all contributions to it to be considered eligible for corporate social responsibility (CSR) expenses. Contributions to state relief funds, however, do not qualify as CSR activity. Notably, West Bengal MP, Mahua Moitra, speaking in Parliament during the recently concluded Monsoon session, had pointed out that this would direct corporate funds to PM Cares, away from state relief funds.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Pune.