On Wednesday, the Supreme Court dismissed petitions challenging some elements of PM Cares, the public charitable trust headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi that aims to fight the Covid-19 pandemic. Since the trust began to appeal to the public for donations after it was launched at the end of March, concerned citizens have requested information about how much money the entity has received and what it is being used for. By dismissing the petitions, the Supreme Court has, without providing any substantial reasoning, sidestepped the question of scrutinising donations to PM Cares.
PM Cares – the acronym for Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations – was set up in with the stated objective of being a “dedicated national fund” to deal with “any kind of emergency or distress situation”.
The fundamental aspect of the legal challenge to PM Cares was that unlike the National Disaster Response Fund, which is audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, the finances of the new initiative will be scrutinised by a private auditor. This is because PM Cares is a trust and not a statutory fund.
The call for PM Cares to be subjected to greater scrutiny rests on several arguments. One, since the National Disaster Relief Fund is already the operation, the government needed to explain why it chose to create a new entity.
Second, the functioning of PM Cares over the last few months has borne out the suspicions that activists and lawyers had raised. Last week, it came to light that the Prime Minister’s Office, citing a vague provision, refused to divulge details sought through a Right to Information Act application about how donations to PM Cares have been used. The Prime Minister’s Office said that collating these details would mean diverting crucial resources, which it cannot do at the moment. This reply sits at odds with previous court decisions noting that the claim of resource diversion cannot be used to deny information sought under the RTI Act.
In July, the Opposition claimed that the Narendra Modi government was trying to scuttle attempts by the Public Accounts Committee of the Parliament to look into the PM Cares funds.
Related to the question of why oversight by the Comptroller and Auditor General is not essential, all that the Supreme Court offers as a justification is that the National Disaster Relief Fund, which receives government allocations, and the fund headed by the prime minister, are completely different in how they are constituted. While the National Disaster Relief Fund has been established under the National Disaster Management Act, PM Cares is a public trust that does not by law warrant scrutiny by the CAG.
“The guidelines issued under Act, 2005 with regard to NDRF specifically provides for audit of the NDRF by the Comptroller & Auditor General of India,” the court said. “Whereas for public charitable trust there is no occasion for audit by the Comptroller & Auditor General of India.”
It added that no one could take exception to the PM Cares being constituted “at this need of the hour”. The court said that Covid-19 was notified as a disaster only on March 14. Before this, “no contribution by any person or institution in the NDRF could have been made with respect to specified disaster, namely, biological and public health emergency like Covid-19”. It was not for the petitioners to question the rationale of the fund.
By harping on technicalities, the Supreme Court has missed the point of the petition. Though the government does not formally allocate money through the budget for PM Cares, the fact is that the fund is receiving money contributed by the public for the public purpose of fighting a pandemic.
The least that the Supreme Court could have done is to ensure that the financial statements of PM Cares are published periodically, without Indians and other donors having to wait for annual audits to be completed and the statements declared. After all, during a disaster, the people have the right to know clearly and quickly how the government is using the resources it is raising from them ostensibly to be used for their benefit.