The Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations, or PM CARES Fund, has received Rs 535.44 crore as foreign donations in the last three years, The Indian Express reported on Monday, citing official records.

The corpus had been 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.

The fund had received Rs 40 lakh in foreign contributions in the financial year 2019-’20, The Indian Express reported, citing the Receipt and Payment Accounts (Audited) of the PM CARES Fund. The foreign donations peaked at Rs 494.92 crore in the financial year 2020-’21, before declining to Rs 40.12 crore in 2021-’22.

The fund earned a further Rs 24.85 crore as interest during the three financial years, according to the newspaper.

The foreign donations to the PM CARES fund hold significance in light of the fact that it has been exempted from a law that regulates contributions to organisations from abroad. “PM CARES Fund has received exemption from operation of all provisions of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 2010,” reads one of the entries in the Frequently Asked Questions section of the fund’s official website.

In September 2020, the Union home ministry even refused to provide details on the reasons behind the exemption in response to a Right to Information Act query. The ministry had said that it would need to “seek the consent” of PM CARES before giving out the information, as the fund is considered a “third party” under the RTI Act, The Hindu reported.

In response to legal petitions seeking transparency of the fund under the RTI Act, the government has also refused to list PM CARES as “the State” or a “public authority”. The Centre has argued that PM CARES is a public charitable trust, but is not controlled by the government, as it has not been created under provisions of the Constitution or any parliamentary law.

The exemption of PM CARES from foreign donation laws came against the backdrop of the Centre coming down heavily on several non-government organisations under the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act.

In one stroke on January 1, 2022, the foreign funding registrations of 5,932 non-government organisations were cancelled as either the NGOs did not apply for renewal or the home ministry refused to sanction their applications. Oxfam India Trust, Indian Youth Centres Trust, Jamia Millia Islamia and Tuberculosis Association of India are reportedly among the prominent NGOs whose registrations became void.

Actions against activist Harsh Mander’s NGO Aman Biradari, journalist Rana Ayyub, environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta, Delhi-based think tank Centre for Policy Research, NGOs headed by Congress leader Sonia Gandhi and the BBC have triggered apprehensions that the Centre is using foreign funding and foreign exchange rules to target critical voices.

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