Since its launch on March 28, 2020, the Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund, or PM-CARES, has been embroiled in several controversies.
Rediff.com‘s Syed Firdaus Ashraf traces the journey of PM-CARES from its founding to finally admitting it is not a government fund.
Table: Hemant Shivsharan/Rediff.com
PM-CARES was registered on March 27, 2020, as a public charitable trust, four days before the closure of the financial year 2019-20.
The announcement of its launch was made to the public the next day.
At that time it seemed that the central government was in dire need of funds to tackle COVID-19 in a difficult economic situation.
No one knew then what the pandemic’s outcome would be and how long it will persist, except that COVID-19 would herald a major financial and economic disruption.
Four days prior, on March 24, 2020, with just four hours’ notice, Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi had suddenly declared a nationwide lockdown, for 21 days. All economic activities in the country came to an abrupt halt.
At the launch of PM-CARES, Modi was named its chairman.
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and Home Minister Amit Anilchandra Shah were the trustees.
The first row erupted when critics questioned the need for another centralised relief fund when India already has the Prime Minister National Relief Fund at the Centre and the Chief Minister Relief Funds at the state level, besides the State Disaster Management Authority Funds.
Despite the criticism, the Modi government went ahead with PM-CARES.
Within days of its launch several well-known personalities began donating to it.
Bollywood superstar Akshay Kumar donated Rs 25 crore (Rs 250 million) to PM-CARES, making a huge start for this new fund.
In April 2020, another controversy came to the fore when the government asked all employees of its ministries to contribute a day’s salary to PM-CARES.
Though this donation was meant to be voluntary, the circular issued by the government stated that any officer or staff having objections to the donation can intimate so in writing.
In May 2020, PM-CARES issued a press release (external link) through the Press Information Bureau stating it is allocating Rs 3,100 crore (Rs 31 billion) to fight COVID-19.
Of this amount, approximately Rs 2,000 crore (Rs 20 billion) would be earmarked for the purchase of ventilators, Rs 1,000 crores (Rs 10 billion) would be used for care of migrant labourers and Rs 100 crores (Rs 1 billion) would be granted to support vaccine development, the statement said.
There was no information on the collection and source of the money.
Soon another controversy erupted after India Spend revealed (external link) that the fund had raised Rs 9,667.9 crore (Rs 96.679 billion) in 52 days.
By June 2020, activists and lawyers knocked on the doors of various courts in the country as PM-CARES was not sharing any details about the source of funds or how it was being spent.
Petitioner Samyak Gangwal approached (external link) the Delhi high court stating that PM-CARES had to come within the ambit of the Right to Information Act.
On June 2, 2020, the Central Public Information Officer in the PMO refused to provide documents on PM-CARES sought by Gangwal under the RTI Act.
Gangwal’s argument was that the Modi government must stop using the State emblem, the domain name ‘gov’ on the PM-CARES Web site or the prime minister’s photograph for PM-CARES if there was no transparency in its dealings.
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