Ever since the independence of India, the country gasped under the dark clouds of obliviousness until October, 2005. The Right to Information Act came as a consequence of humongous manoeuvres and stunts by the various governments that kept transitioning too often. The said Act is one of the most momentous and reinforcing pillars of the Indian Constitution and Democracy. An individual herein is bestowed upon a legal right to seek for any information that falls under the ambit of the concerned legislation i.e. Right to Information Act, 2005 by merely remunerating a negligible fee.
In 2019, Lok Sabha introduced the unprecedented amendment in the RTI Act that talked of the salaries and tenure of the Chief Information Commissioners (CICs) and Information Commissioners (ICs). To be precise, prior to the amendment, tenure of CICs and ICs was fixed for a period of five years as appointed by the President and as of the salaries, they were that of the rank of Chief Election Commissioner and Election Commissioner respectively, but altering these provisions indicated the arbitral aspect of the ruling Government. The CICs and ICs are now too fragile and feeble to act independently. This amendment dismayed the very underlying principles of the Act and transcended to an entirely repugnant policy. Although the amendment faced its share of mocking and cynicism however irrational it may be, considering the amount of persons in favour of the amendment, the same was passed by both the houses in August, 2019.
Analysis – PM Cares Fund & the RTI
Year of uncertainties, 2020 wherein the outbreak of COVID-19 continues to subjugate the entire world let alone a country, has led to manifold crises emanating from it. Financial crises of utmost importance amidst existential crises paved way for Central Government to introduce a ‘Prime Minister’s Citizen’s Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund’ alias PM- CARES Fund for the sole purpose of fighting the havoc created due to CoronaVirus and the pandemic. Recently a law student from Bangalore filed an RTI application seeking for the constitution of the FUND however disposing of the application by the Public Information Officer of PMO said, “PMO is not a public authority under the ambit of section 2(h) of the RTI Act, 2005. However, relevant information in respect of PM CARES FUND may be seen on the website pmcares.gov.in” Now, as per section 2(h) of the RTI Act ‘public authority’ means any authority or body or institution of self- government established or constituted,-
(a) by or under the constitution:
(b) by any other law made by the Parliament;
(c) by any other law made by State Legislature;
(d) by notification issued or order made by the appropriate Government.
With Prime Minister being the ex officio chairman and ministers of Defence, Home Affairs and Finance as ex officio trustees of the fund, it is bound to be a public authority because the Fund is a result of an announcement made by the PM on National Television on 28th March 2020 that attracts section 2(h)(d) of the RTI Act, not to forget Article 12 of the Constitution of India defines States which and it includes ‘other authorities under the control of Govt of India’. The PM CARES Fund is under the regime of the current govt which has refused to disclose any information with regard to the fund.
Also, the said fund will not be audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG). Sources in the CAG offices said, “Since the fund is based on donations of individuals and organisations, we have no right to audit the charitable organisation,”
Not only has this led to a tyrannical state of affairs but the RTI application has provoked the activists and legislators to ponder profoundly over the secrecy created in and around the fund. A web announcement says, “Donations of PM CARES Fund would qualify for 8G benefits for 100% exemption under the Income Tax Act, 1961. Donations to PM CARES Fund will also qualify to be counted as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) expenditure under the Companies Act, 2013. Also, the Fund has got exemption under the FCRA and a separate account for receiving foreign donations.”
As accounting for the DONATIONS in the fund, the irony here is- the Finance Ministry’s Revenue Department requested its employees to compulsorily donate a single day’s salary towards the fund every month until March 2021.
As a consequence of the PMO denying transparency revolving around the PM CARES Fund, a petition has been filed in the High Court of Delhi citing the recent newspaper reports about bringing the PM CARES Fund under the ambit of section 2(h) of the RTI Act, 2005. “The reluctance of the trustees of the fund in divulging information as to the management of the fundraises a profoundly serious apprehension since the fund has been set up to fight COVID-19 which a public cause,” said Mr Hooda the petitioner herein, who is also a practicing Advocate-on-Record at the Supreme Court.
Not to forget The Prime Minister National Relief Fund (PMNRF) when already in place, though the same is not transparent as well but it is inclusive of opposition as its trustees, the need to PM CARES is inefficacious and malicious [the author is of the opinion that the PMNRF should also be brought under the RTI]. As of the numbers, collection made by the PM CARES FUND as per a report by Indiaspend is at least Rs.9,677.90 Crore, whereas the PMNRF on its official website suggests that it has an unused corpus of Rs.3,800.44 Crore as of 2019. The accumulation of the huge amount of donation that has been incorporated in the PM CARES is indeed a financial victory for India however, the allocation and its usage is ex facie peculiar. Considering the humanitarian crises of labour, the shortage of beds, medicines, PPE kits, salaries of the doctors etc necessitates the citizens of our country with a right to know about these donations via the RTI Act.
The fact that all pointers above mentioned and various other loopholes in the controversial Fund of PM CARES Fund direct towards suspicious activities. In about a month, the Fund accumulated an estimate of 10,000 Crore which have not yet been accounted for. A country with diverse religions, cultures and communities, India has not only faced the pandemic as a medical emergency in the state of affairs but a concomitant of the pandemic is the humanitarian crises that our country has to fight every single time when such a situation arises.
About the Author, Srishti [2017-22 Batch] is pursuing B.A.LL.B (Hons) from New Law College, Bharati Vidyapeeth University, Pune.
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