The Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations, or PM-CARES fund, can neither be listed as “the State” nor a “public authority” under the Right to Information Act, the Centre has told the Delhi High Court, the Hindustan Times reported on Wednesday.
The Centre added that the amount from PM-CARES is not transferred to the Consolidated Fund of India, The Indian Express reported.
The government submitted an affidavit to the court on September 14 in response to the petitions filed by a lawyer named Samyak Gangwal.
Gangwal had said that to ensure transparency in the fund’s working, it should be declared “the State”, The Hindu reported. He also sought that PM-CARES be declared a “public authority” under the RTI Act.
According to Article 12 of the Constitution of India, “the State” includes “the Government and Parliament of India and the Government and the Legislature of each of the States and all local or other authorities within the territory of India or under the control of the Government of India”.
The PM-CARES was established in March last year with the stated objective of being a “dedicated national fund” to deal with “any kind of emergency or distress situation” in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the chairperson of the trust, while senior ministers are trustees.
The petitioner has told the Delhi High Court that the fund was represented as having been set up and run by the Centre, PTI reported.
Gangwal added: “The representations also included the use of government resources such as – use of ‘.gov.in’ domain name, State Emblem of India and the name ‘Prime Minister’ and its abbreviation on the PM Cares Fund website and in other official and unofficial communications.”
The lawyer said the the official address of the the fund was the “Prime Minister’s Office, South Block, New Delhi”.
On the other hand, the government argued in its affidavit that the fund was not created through any law made by Parliament or under the Constitution, the Hindustan Times reported. Instead, it was established as a charitable trust, the government added.
The government said it did not intend to own or finance the fund. “PM CARES Fund comprises voluntary donations made by individuals and institutions and is not a part of business or function of the central government in any manner,” the government submitted.
It added: “PM CARES Fund is not a part of any government scheme or business of the central government and being a public trust, it is also not subject to audit of Comptroller and Auditor General of India.”
The government also said that that PM CARES was not a “public authority” under the RTI Act. On previous occasions, it has argued that PM-CARES does not come under the RTI Act because it receives funds from private sources.
The Delhi High Court is expected to take up the matter on September 27, the Hindustan Times reported.
Meanwhile, several leaders from Opposition parties castigated the Centre for its stand in court. Congress General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra said that even as the fund is named the PM CARES Fund, it was not established on the basis of any constitutional provision or a law passed by Parliament.
“Why do laws to ensure accountability such as the RTI Act not apply to it?” she asked in Hindi in a tweet. “Seeking opportunity in a disaster?”
Trinamool Congress MP Derek O’Brien posted a short clip of a speech he made in the Parliament about the fund in September last year.
“The most opaque, dark fund in the world is called the Prime Minister Couldn’t Care Less Fund,” O’Brien said in a tweet.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist) asked why the fund had the name of the prime minister, when it was not a government fund.
“Why were PSUs and Govt employees forced to contribute to it?” the party said on Twitter. “An elaborate fraud to extort money?”
PM CARES controversy
The controversy about PM-CARES ownership had erupted in December after the fund’s trust deed was made public. A clause in the document called the fund a private entity, exempting it from RTI scrutiny.
The government had then said in response to an RTI query that PM-CARES was a body “owned and established” by the government. This contradicted the government’s earlier claim that that the fund was private.
The fund has been registered with the revenue department of Delhi. Opposition parties have repeatedly raised questions about the fund’s transparency and have questioned the need to create the reserve when Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund already existed.
In May, 2020 the Centre had refused to provide details about the PM CARES Fund to a Right to Information applicant, saying that the reserve was not a “public authority” under the RTI Act. In April, the government had said that the fund will not be audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India since it was based on donations of individuals and organisations.