The Delhi High Court on Tuesday expressed its displeasure at a one-page affidavit filed by the Centre on a petition on the Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations, or PM CARES Fund, reported Bar and Bench.
The plea seeks to declare the fund as a “State” under Article 12 of the Constitution.
The Article says that “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 petitioner, Advocate Samyak Gangwal, has filed two pleas before the court. One of them is to list the PM CARES Fund as a “State” and other to declare it a “public authority” under the Right to Information Act. Gangwal had filed the petition to ensure transparency in the way the fund is operated.
In September, the Centre had told the High Court that the fund could neither be listed as “the State” nor a “public authority”. The government had argued that it did not did not intend to own or finance the fund. It had said that the fund was made up of voluntary donations by individuals and institutions and is not a part of business or function of the central government.
The PM CARES Fund was established in March 2020 as a “dedicated national fund” to deal with “any kind of emergency or distress situation” in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic.
At Tuesday’s hearing, the court said that the matter was not so simple that it could be addressed in a one-page affidavit.
“There is not a whisper about what the learned senior counsel on the other side is arguing,” Chief Justice Satish Chandra Sharma added. “The issue is not that simple. We need a proper reply.”
The chief justice also said that the court needs a proper reply as it has to pass an order on each of the matters raised by Senior Advocate Shyam Divan, representing the petitioner.
Divan submitted that Centre had been given several opportunities to file its reply and alleged that the government chose to remain silent and drag the matter.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta dismissed the allegations and said that the government will file with a detailed response within four weeks.
“Let a detailed and exhaustive reply be filed,” the court said in its order. The plea will next be heard on September 16.
In his petition, Gangwal has argued that senior government functionaries were representing the fund set up and operated by the government.
It contended the fund uses government resources such as a “gov.in” domain name for its website, the national emblem and the words “Prime Minister” and its abbreviation in official and unofficial communications.
The plea contended that the office of the PM CARES Fund office was the prime minister’s office.
The petition said that as a result of presenting the fund in such a manner, it received huge donations. The PM CARES Fund website showed that Rs 3,076.62 crore was collected merely within four days of its creation, the plea noted.
The petitioner stated he was not accusing the government of any wrongdoing but was seeking to place checks and balances as the trustees of the funds are senior government functionaries.
PM CARES controversy
The controversy about PM CARES ownership had erupted in December 2020 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 Fund 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.