Does PM Care Fund come under RTI Act, 2005?

This article has been written by Anushka Sharma, a student of Delhi Metropolitan Education GGSIPU.

Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund (PM Fund) is a public charitable trust. It was created on March 28, 2020 on account of the global pandemic COVID-19. The main objective of this fund is to deal with any sort of crisis and distress circumstances aiding the affected.

According to various reports, the funds collected were around INR 6500 crores within a week of its establishment. The funds have been subjected to outrage by the opposition on the ground of its ignorance of the already existing Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund (PMNRF).

There have been at least two PIL petitions claiming for the information regarding the PM Care Fund. Both have been dismissed by the Apex Court of India on the grounds of not regarding it a ‘Public Authority’ under the Right to Information Act,:2005.

What do we understand by the term ‘public authority’?

Section 2(h) of the Right to Information Act, 2005 states that “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 Parliament;

(c) by any other law made by State Legislature;

(d) by notification issued or order made by the appropriate Government,

and includes any—

(i) body owned, controlled or substantially financed;

(ii) non-Government organization substantially financed,

directly or indirectly by funds provided by the appropriate Government;”

The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), by quashing PM Care fund status of ‘public authority’, is only trying to deduce that it does not fall under the ambit of the Government.

The question which arises here is that if the Government is not controlling the fund, then under whose control does the fund fall? If we look at the title, emblem usage and other things of the fund it signifies to fall under the ambit of the RTI Act, 2005.

The Government by denying the claim of it falling under the RTI Act, is trying to create suspense and confidentiality around the subject.

As a citizen of the country, it is very important to be aware about the initiatives proposed by the government body. There should be a relationship of transparency between the government of a country and its citizens.

A relationship of trust can only be built if the government keeps its citizens informed. The refusal and inability to disclose the information about the PM fund is just creating mistrust and keeping the citizens under deception.

The trust has been constituted and run by four cabinet ministers in their ex-officio capacities and the denial of giving it the status of the ‘public authority’ comes as a big blow to transparency and also to the democratic value attached to our country.

The first petition was dismissed by the Apex Court on the ground of misconception whereas the second petitioner was intimidated with a fine and was told to withdraw the Public Interest Litigation (PIL) considering it a political strategy and saying it has a “political color” to it.

The curtailment of freedom of speech is coming into picture in this case where petitioners are threatened if they try to criticize the policies of the government or try to dig information regarding any of the policies or initiatives the government has come up with.

If we look closely to Section 2(h)(d), it clearly states that “public authority” “includes anybody owned, controlled or (emphasis supplied) substantially financed directly or indirectly by the appropriate Government.”

If we talk about control, then the fund is under the control of the Government as the Prime Minister is the ex-officio chairman of PM CARES Fund and the ministers of Home Affairs, Defense and Finance are its ex-officio trustees. In addition, they also have a power to nominate three additional trustees. Apart from this, they can even formulate rules/criterions for spending the funds of the trust.

Talking about financing, collection of Rs.10,000 crores has been generated by donations largely from the Public Sector Undertakings, Central Ministries and Departments and members of the armed forces, and salaries of civil servants and employees in the judicial services which have been mandatorily donated into the fund.

Now the question which arises here is that if the PMO is not considering the PM CARES Fund as a ‘public authority’, then the examination of whether the public authorities at the highest level could elicit the government agencies, public servants to contribute to this fund whose details are sought to be kept non-transparent.

The author believes that the victims of Covid-19 have a right to know about the fund as they need it urgently to fight the pandemic which is very deadly in nature. The author also believes that not only the patients but even the non-affected citizens have the right to know about this fund and its usage.

The case has been filed by Dr. SS Hooda through Advocate Aditya Hooda which will be taken up by the Supreme Court most likely on June 10, 2020. As stated by the petitioner Dr. SS Hooda who filed a Public Interest Litigation in the backdrop of the reply given by the PM’s Office to an RTI application, that if the website clearly states that people who are involved in the management of the fund are working for good cause or in a pro bono capacity and not having any self/personal interest in the fund then why are they hesitant in disclosing such basic information about the PM CARES Fund?

Also, the PM CARES Fund has the logo that uses the State Emblem of the Sarnath Lion Capital of Ashoka which is prohibited as the State Emblem of India( Prohibition of Improper Use) Act, 2005. The Act prohibits the improper use of State Emblem of India for professional and commercial use and for other reasons connected to it. The fund also uses the emblem on avenues where the donations are promoted and thus in violation of Section 3 of the Emblem Act which states that “no person shall use the emblem in any manner which tends to create an impression that it relates to the Government” and therefore, the use of emblem is not justifiable.

Concluding, the author believes that the Apex Court should deliver a judgement which is in favor of the citizens as they have the right to know about where the money is actually going and whether or not it is getting utilized properly.