New Delhi: The lack of transparency over the PM-CARES fund, floated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi for tackling the pandemic, is sure to raise more eyebrows. In the latest development, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) has denied to give any information on an RTI application, according to a report in The Hindu.
The application was filed by RTI activist Commodore Lokesh Batra (retd), requesting information on the number of RTI applications and appeals received and settled by the PMO since April 2020, and number of such applications related to PM-CARES and the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund.
However, the PMO refused to divulge any information on the number of RTI applications received by it related to these two funds, stating that this would amount to “disproportionately divert the resources of the office,” according to The Hindu.
The news report said the PMO provided overall data but refused to give and information on the two specific funds – PM-CARES and PM-NRF.
“The information sought by you is not maintained in this office in compiled form. Its collection and compilation would disproportionately divert the resources of this office from the efficient discharge of its normal functions, thereby attracting the provisions under Section 7(9) of the Act,” said the PMO’s chief public information officer, as per the report.
The new report pointed out that a high court judgement and some previous Chief Information Commissioners had held that under the RTI Act, “this information can be used to change on the format of information provided, not deny the information.”
In a 2010 ruling, the Kerala High Court had dismissed the possibility of using the clause under Section 7(9) of the RTI Act to deny information.
In fact, reacting to the latest denial of information by the PMO, former CIC, Wajahat Habibullah, told The Hindu, that this amounted to “misuse of the Act”, adding that this should attract penalties.
The former CIC said “there is no ambiguity” in the clause that has been cited to deny information, adding this would amount to misinforming the public by the officer concerned.
Section 7(9) of the Act says: “An information shall ordinary be provided in the form in which it is sought unless it would disproportionately divert the resources of the public authority or would be detrimental to the safety or preservation of the record in question.”
Notably, the PM-CARES fund has attracted a lot of flak, with critics questioning why there was need for another fund when the PM-NRF was already existent. Also, the fund has been under cloud for lack of transparency.
Several Opposition parties, such as the Left parties and Congress, have demanded that PM-CARES should be subject to government audit by the Comptroller and Auditor General.
The fund is supposed to be under the purview of a private trust comprising the Prime Minister and the details cannot be sought under RTI, neither can it be audited by any governmental agency. It was announced during the Parliament session in March, when the COVID-19 pandemic had started spreading worldwide.
In fact, the Congress has also demanded a government audit of the fund and recently questioned the purchase of around 50,000 ventilators using about Rs 2,000 crore from this fund, alleging that no tenders for floated for the same.
Seeking accountability and transparency, the CPI(M) issued a statement in July, citing media reports suggesting that over Rs 10,000 crore had been collected till July of which over Rs 4,000 crore had come from government agencies and employees.
“Government employees and professionals were made to compulsorily donate a day’s salary. Two years of MPLAD funds have been diverted to this trust fund. The Companies Act 2013 was amended to allow donations to this fund of a private trust to be eligible under Corporate Social Responsibility contributions.This fund liberally uses the national emblem, the PM’s image and is backed by official circulars to the public sector unit employees to donate. Tax exemptions for donations to this fund have been provided, the Communist party of India (Marxist) had said in its statement, questioning why there was need to create a separate private trust fund when the official Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund has been in existence since Independence.