It is commendable that the Department of Revenue (DoR) gave into the widespread criticism of its earlier circular from April 17, 2020, and modified it through another circular dated April 29, 2020. But, it has done so – only partially.
Broadly, there were two troubling issues in the DoR’s April 17 circular. One was the recovery of one per cent monthly salary of every employee for all months of the financial year (FY) 2020-21 unless someone “having objection to recover” intimated it in writing to the DDO in the department of revenue. The other related to recovering it as a contribution to the Prime Minister’s Citizen’s Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations (PM-CARES) funds.
The first objective has been modified – the default gilding “having objection to recover” in the first circular giving way to “willing to contribute” may “intimate their willingness”to the DDO. Except that the coerciveness of the first circular for default recovery remains for April’s salary, with no options made available for reversing the recovery made, if anyone so wishes. Hope this too is resolved quickly.
It is the second issue – directive of contributing to the Prime Minister’s Citizen’s Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations (PM-CARES) Fund – that stays regardless. And this is hugely impugning. As I wrote in The Wire, “… the decision was an appeal to all officers and staff to contribute in view of the pandemic gripping this country... As donations go, it would, naturally, follow that contributions were voluntary – an appeal is an appeal to nudge officials to convey deductions from salary for stated amount(s)/month(s) of his choice, or to donate to whichever funds he or she deems fit.”
Salary, beyond doubt, is the employee’s personal money paid for the work performed as per service agreement between them and their employer. Hence, it is entirely their choice, to firstly decide ifthey would like to affirmatively respond to the call of appeal made in the circular to contribute their share to fight the coronavirus pandemic; and secondly, if so, to which fund they would like to contribute, instead of preemptively and peremptorily making summary recovery from the employee’s salary as contribution to the PM-CARES fund. This is where the department of revenue’s decision gets murkier, with a background of telltale trails!
The need for creation of a new fund with the moniker – Prime Minister’s Citizen’s Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations (PM-CARES) – was meaningless in the face of an already existing and well-known fund called Prime Minister National Relief Fund (PMNRF) going as far back as 1948.
The cabinet secretary seems to have kick-started the process. In a semi-offical letter dated April 16, 2020 addressed to all secretaries of all ministries/departments, he inter alia wrote that“it will be appreciated if an appeal is issued at your level to all officials working in your Ministry/Department as well as in the attached/subordinate offices and public sector undertakings to contribute to Government’s efforts to deal with this unprecedented situation. The voluntary contributions of all the willing officials in the Ministry/Department, deducted at source, may be sent to the Prime Minister’s Citizen’s Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situation Fund (PM CARES Fund) through the PFMS mechanism.”
It was a clear direction of the cabinet secretary to book the amount deducted at source to the PM CARES Fund – not to any other fund including the Prime Minister National Relief Fund (PMNRF) or any of the Chief Minister Relief Funds. But to be fair to him, neither did he suggest recovery of one per cent salary every month for the entire FY 2020-21, nor did he impart coercion to contribute through skillful wordsmithing of the circular of April 17, since modified. But then, the DoR gamed it by indulging in competitive ingratiation – one of the favourite ways for future career positioning or sinecures.
Notwithstanding that, prudence dictated complete reneging of the circular of April 17, thereby offering the chance to officials who did not convey objection in writing to deduct from their April 2020 salary. This is immoral and disingenuous, to say the least, in the light of the fact that the order freezing dearness allowance/relief (DA/DR) from January 1, 2020 till June 30, 2021 for serving/retired employees came out only on April 23, 2020 – three days past the window provided to object in writing as per the April 17. The freezing of DA/DR itself is searing by itself, but that is yet another story, and not for discussion here.
The order freeze on DA coupled with lowering of the bank interest rate, plus a citizen’s urge to donate to a cause they consider dear, have put a strain on their living and disposable money, and sheer common sense would deem that they be left to their own devices – to choose and decide.
Of the many prescriptions in the conduct rules for central government servants, forcing compliance to diktats from the top, one on the official’s personal funds is certainly not one!
Yet the looming question of contribution to the PM CARES Fund stays undimmed. Why must government officials have no right of choice to donate or contribute to any other fund of their choosing? News has since emanated of Prime Minister’s Office’s (PMO) refusal to part with documents relating to the PM-CARES Fund and make them public. Pray, how can the donor not have the right to know how his donation has been utilised? Put politely, this is bizarre.
What compounds the confusion is that as Rs 3800 crore was the balance in the PMNRF as of March 31, 2019, perhaps Rs 5000 crore is available now. With CSR funds’ questionable subsuming of company’s contributions to the PM-CARES Fund, the all-round confusion seems veritable smoke and mirrors. Shouldn’t, then, for the sake of transparency and public knowing, the PM-CARES be merged with the PMNRF to grant it credence and credibility in these pandemic times?
To paraphrase an oft-quoted aphorism used in another context, one would say: My right to know is where the Fund to which I donate, begins!
The author is a former civil servant who retired as Financial Adviser, Ministry of Defence. The views are personal.