New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Tuesday refused to direct the Centre to transfer the contributions made to the PM-CARES Fund for battling the COVID-19 pandemic to the National Disaster Response Fund (NDRF).
A bench headed by Justice Ashok Bhushan said that voluntary contribution can always be made to the NDRF as there is no statutory bar under the Disaster Management Act.
The judgement came on a PIL, filed by NGO 'Centre for Public Interest Litigation, seeking a direction that all the money collected under the PM-CARES Fund for the COVID-19 pandemic should be transferred to the NDRF.
The PIL had also sought a direction to the government to prepare, notify and implement a national plan under the Disaster Management Act to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The bench, also comprising justices R S Reddy and M R Shah, said in its verdict that a plan prepared by the government under the Disaster Management Act was sufficient for COVID-19 also.
The Centre had on March 28 set up the Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations (PM CARES) Fund with the primary objective to deal with any kind of emergency situation like the one currently posed by the COVID-19 outbreak and provide relief to those affected.
The prime minister is the ex-officio chairman of the fund and the ministers of defence, home and finance are its ex-officio trustees.
During the hearing in the top court on July 27, the Centre had defended the PM-CARES Fund saying it is a “public trust” meant to receive "voluntary contributions" to fight COVID-19 pandemic and the budgetary allocations for NDRF and SDRF are not "being touched".
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta had told the court that the PM-CARES Fund is a "voluntary fund", while funds to the NDRF and SDRF (State Disaster Response Fund) are made available through budgetary allocations.
Senior advocate Dushyant Dave, appearing for the petitioner NGO, had said that they are not doubting the bona fide of anyone but the creation of the PM CARES Fund is allegedly in contravention of provisions of the Disaster Management Act.
Dave said that an audit of the NDRF was being conducted by the Comptroller and Auditor-General (CAG) but the government has said the audit of the PM-CARES Fund will be done by private auditors.
Dave had also questioned the validity of the PM CARES Fund.
On June 17, the apex court had asked the Centre to file its response on the plea, which has sought a direction that all the contributions made by individuals and institutions for the COVID-19 pandemic should be credited to the NDRF, rather than to the PM-CARES Fund.
The PIL had alleged that the Centre has been "refraining from divulging information about the specific utilization of crores of rupees that have been contributed to the PM CARES Fund till date".
'Body Blow to Transparency': Congress
The Congress on Tuesday said the Supreme Court's judgement on the PM-CARES Fund is a "body blow to transparency and accountability" of the government to the people.
Congress chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala said the apex court let go an opportunity to bring in transparency in the fund which has "its own opaque and murky rules" and, thereby, deviated from the belief that "sunlight is the best disinfectant".
Reacting to the verdict, Surjewala said, "The SC judgment is a body blow to transparency & accountability of Govt to people. It marks a sad letter day for responsibility & answerability of rulers to the electorate and remind them that they are not 'Monarchs' but 'servants of the people'."
"SC scrupulously believed that 'sunlight is the best disinfectant'. Today, the Court, in a departure from that tradition, passed up an opportunity to demand answers on the #PMCaresFund that seeks public money but plays by its own opaque & murky rules," he said in another tweet.