If irony was writing itself, it could not have done a better job. The Prime Minister of India and central government departments projected the PM-CARES as an official effort to raise funds for tackling Covid-19, but the Prime Minister’s Office, India’s solicitor general and other law officers of the government strained every sinew in courts to state—on affidavits—that it is not a government or State fund. The latest assertion came last week in the Delhi High Court.
In the 18 months since it was set up, there have been more questions than answers about the ownership and control over PM-CARES and its management of coffers worth at least Rs. 10,000 crore. In fact, there is no clarity on the total collection and disbursement so far. Responses to Right to Information (RTI) queries and court proceedings so far have not settled the simple issue of whose fund it is—that of the Prime Minister of India or merely its incumbent, Narendra Modi.
The official-unofficial dichotomy cannot be shrugged off. An affidavit filed in the Delhi High Court (signed by an under-secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office) asserted that the PM-CARES fund is a public charitable trust, not a government or State fund. It also said the amount collected does not reflect in the Consolidated Fund of India (CFI). The Solicitor General has appeared in the Supreme Court and other law officers in different courts to oppose public interest petitions that called to declare PM-CARES a public authority or brought under the ambit of the RTI Act. Most RTI queries were stonewalled, which forced petitioners to approach the courts.
Going by news reports and affidavits, the fund is managed out of the PMO, whose officers, paid from the national exchequer, extend “honorary” services to PM-CARES. The PM, who holds a constitutional post, is the chairperson of the Board of Trustees. According to its website, the PM is the “settler” or creator of the fund, and its trustees are Cabinet ministers of the government of India. The PM-CARES, of course, expands to Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situation with the words “Prime Minister” defining it. Its website is an official government of India portal; it carries the State Emblem of India.
Every detail suggests it is an official or State entity. However, it introduces itself as a public charitable trust. In courts, those who manage it insisted that it has nothing to do with the government or the CFI. What inference should be drawn here—that it is less a fund of the Prime Minister of India, more that of Narendra Modi? Whose fund is it exactly? Sorcerers and tricksters would be proud of the way this has been pulled off.
After its launch on 27 March, Modi had tweeted: “It is my appeal to my fellow Indians, kindly contribute to the PM-CARES fund.” In the next three days, by the end of the financial year 2019-20, the fund had an impressive Rs. 3,076 crore in its corpus. In the middle of the harshest lockdown and pandemic fears, it apparently ballooned to a total of Rs. 10,600 crore ($1.4 billion) in merely six weeks.
Public sector companies, private conglomerates and individuals contributed to the fund. Public sector and government employees had to part with a day’s salary or offer a reason in writing for not donating. The people of India donated on the assumption that they were giving to the PM’s fund. Foreign donations were allowed, and companies could redirect their Corporate Social Responsibility allocations to the fund.
After 18 months of fighting Covid-19, Indians have little information about the fund set up and filled up to mitigate its negative economic and health impacts on their lives. Barely three-four days after the government established the fund, there was a massive reverse migration with millions of informal sector workers and their families walking from locked-down cities to their village homes, during which at least 100 died. The unprecedented humanitarian crisis in independent India inspired massive relief efforts—not through PM-CARES but by civil society organisations through crowd-funding.
On its website, PM-CARES has details about how to contribute but unlike the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund—set up in 1948 and also steered by the PMO—it does not offer information about collections or allocations.
The PMNRF statement of income and expenditure for the last ten years, from 2010-11 to 2019-20, is on its website, as is the quantum of funds collected and disbursed. In the same decade, Rs 3,048 crore was collected—the equivalent of what PM-CARES mopped up in mere three days—and nearly Rs 2,391 crore disbursed. Similar information for PM-CARES is not available: only the audited statement of accounts till 31 March 2020 is on the website.
After tremendous criticism last year, the PMO spelt out the intentions behind the fund in a statement. It said, “Out of the Rs. 3,100 crore, a sum of approximately Rs. 2,000 crore will be earmarked for the purchase of ventilators, Rs. 1,000 crore will be used for care of migrant labourers and Rs 100. crore will be given to support vaccine development… Rs. 1,000 crore will be allocated to states and UTs for strengthening their efforts in providing accommodation facilities, making food arrangements, providing medical treatment and making transportation arrangements of the migrants”. Approximately 50,000 ventilators under the ‘Make in India’ policy were to be manufactured and distributed to states.
Whether the fund was disbursed according to the plan can be known only after an impartial audit. PM-CARES is not audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, an independent statutory body. Instead, it is audited by a private firm whose owner, RTI activists found out, had links with BJP politicians. Even so, the audit report for 2020-21—the year most of the fund would or should have got spent—is still unavailable. In fact, the trust deed was made public only in December 2020, nine months after it had attracted huge donations. The Opposition took the issue to the Lok Sabha, terming PM-CARES fund a “black hole”, but the ruling BJP deflected it by pointing to the PMNRF and the Gandhis.
So, as Indians struggled through the deadly second wave of the pandemic earlier this year, we did not hear PM-CARES stepping up to cover the exorbitant costs of oxygen cylinders or medicines such as Remdesivir. Stories are pouring in of Indians pushed into poverty due to the pandemic expenses, but there is no talk on PM-CARES extending a helping hand to such families.
The Modi government told the Supreme Court that families with deaths certified due to Covid-19 would get an ex-gratia of Rs. 50,000, but it is the states that are to do this. A Lancet study estimates at least 1,20,000 children in India are Covid-19 orphans, but PM-CARES has not declared it will finance their care and education until they turn 18.
How is the fund being disbursed? Who has benefited from it, who is in the queue? The secrecy and opacity of its functioning—especially its allocations—have cast a harsh dark shadow on PM-CARES. Millions of Indians—and foreigners—donated to PM-CARES, willingly or otherwise, in large measure because it carried the authority of the government of India as also the assurance of the Prime Minister. As every passing month brings more affidavits to the contrary, that too from the PMO, the PM-CARES appears as if it were Modi’s NGO, albeit an extremely well-endowed one.
An elected official holding a constitutional post presiding over a closely-held trust that mimics a State effort has the noisomeness of dishonesty, to put it mildly.
The author, a senior Mumbai-based journalist and columnist, writes on politics, cities, media and gender. The views are personal.