A fund created by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to fight Covid-19 is now mired in controversy and concern over an alleged lack of transparency, writes Geeta Pandey of the BBC in Delhi.
On March 27, just days after India began a nationwide lockdown to stop the spread of the coronavirus, Narendra Modi created the Prime Minister’s Citizen Aid and Emergency Relief Fund minister. The PM Cares Fund, for short.
A day later, Mr. Modi called on “all Indians” to make a donation.
“It is my call to my fellow Indian citizens to please contribute to the PM-Cares Fund,” he tweeted, telling the nation that their donations would strengthen India’s fight against Covid-19 and “des similar distress situations “in the future.
“This will go a long way in creating a healthier India,” he wrote.
Donations have poured in – from industrialists, celebrities, businesses and ordinary people. In one week, reports said donations reached 65 billion rupees ($ 858 million; £ 689 million). The fund is now would have exceeded 100 billion rupees.
But PM Cares has been controversial from the start. Many have questioned the need for a new fund when a similar fund – PM National Relief Fund or PMNRF – has existed in the country since 1948.
Sonia Gandhi, leader of the opposition Congress party, suggested that the money raised be transferred to the PMNRF. Congress also suggested that the fund be used for the welfare of migrants.
On the day PM PMes was created, a massive humanitarian crisis began to unfold in India – millions of migrant workers, among the poorest in India, began to flee cities after Mr. Modi imposed a sudden shutdown across the country. For weeks, they traveled hundreds of miles, hungry and thirsty, to reach their villages. Over 100 dead.
We thought the government would spend at least part of the money to help those who were forced to travel, but that did not happen, which prompted an opposition member to rename the fund. “PM doesn’t really care”.
In the weeks following the creation of the fund, questions were also asked about how it is set up and managed, how much money was raised, from whom and how it is used.
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There is no response to any of these requests on the PM Cares websiteand the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), which manages the fund, refused to provide information. Now, opposition politicians, independent activists and journalists are asking if the government has anything to hide?
Petitions have been filed under the Right to Information Act (RTI) and in the courts to seek more transparency. But so far, the fund has avoided public scrutiny by insisting that PM Cares is not a “public authority”, which means that it is not largely controlled or funded by the government and therefore does not fall under the RTI law. It also means that it cannot be examined by government auditors.
“It is absurd to say that PM Cares is not a public authority,” Kandukuri Sri Harsh, a law student, told the BBC. “Millions of people have not donated to the fund thinking it is a private trust. The money was raised thanks to the name of the Prime Minister.”
Mr. Kandukuri was among the first to seek information with a request for an ITR, filed on April 1, requesting documents on the constitution of the trust and its operation.
He made several arguments as to why the fund should be a public authority:
- It is controlled by the government – the Prime Minister is the president, three of his cabinet colleagues are administrators and the other three administrators are appointed by the Prime Minister.
- PM Cares website is hosted by “gov.in” – the official domain of the government
- The fonds uses the national emblem of India, which only government entities are allowed to use
- It is “substantially funded” by the government – all BJP deputies have been asked to donate 10 million rupees from their constituency fund which is a constitutionally established fund; government-controlled public sector companies donated hundreds of millions of rupees; and one day’s salary for soldiers, civil servants and judges was obligatorily paid into the fund.
“Why is the government obstructing?” Said Mr. Kandukuri. “What can there be to hide?”
Many, said Saket Gokhale, an activist and former journalist, who described the fund as “the government’s Achilles heel, a blatant scam.”
Colleagues from Mr. Modi’s party denied any wrongdoing regarding the fund. Recently, after weeks of questions about the use of the money, the Prime Minister’s Office said it was spending 20 billion rupees to buy 50,000 fans, 10 billion rupees for the welfare of migrants and 1 billion of rupees for vaccine development.
But the funding allocated to migrants has been criticized for being “too little, too late”, and the choice of fans has also experienced problems.
“There was no tender for the fans, no tender process, it was all very arbitrary,” said Mr. Gokhale.
And last week, report said two government-appointed panels have raised concerns on the reliability and capacity of 10,000 fans purchased under PM Cares.
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Mr. Gokhale also questioned the choice of SARC & Associates, the private company that was chosen to audit the fund. The firm was appointed by Mr. Modi to audit the PMNRF in March 2018 without a call for tenders.
“The only thing he has for him is his deep ties to the BJP,” said Gokhale. “SK Gupta, who runs it, is a staunch defender of BJP policies, the author of a book on Make in India which is Mr. Modi’s favorite project, and he organizes quasi-governmental events at the “Foreigner. And he also contributed 20 million rupees to PM Cares Fund. He fears suspicious audits.”
Mr. Gupta personally announced the contribution of 20 million rupees via his Twitter account. The BBC asked him to respond to allegations that SARC & Associates was chosen to audit the fund because of its links to the BJP, but declined to comment.
Nalin Kohli, spokesperson for the BJP, defended the fund.
Kohli said PMNRF was generally used for natural disasters, and the reason for creating PM Cares was to have a more focused approach to dealing with a pandemic. He stressed that the PMNRF, created by the first Indian PM Jawaharlal Nehru, included the president of the Congress Party among the administrators.
“There are many political parties in the country and why should a party be included in something that involves public funding for public purposes?” He said.
He said that Mr. Modi and the other senior ministers were involved with PM Cares because of their positions, not as representatives of political parties.
Kohli also dismissed the accusation that the fund lacked transparency. He insisted that SARC & Associates had been “engaged only on the merits” and that the fund would respect all statutory compliance.
Concerns about the fund have been raised by some opposition politicians, he added. “This is a new fund, what is this urgent need to be accountable to the public at a time when everyone is busy fighting a pandemic?”
But questions about the opacity of the fund are not only raised by the opposition. Supreme Court lawyer Surender Singh Hooda, who had filed an application with the Delhi High Court, described the apparent reluctance of fund managers to disclose information as “unfathomable”.
Mr. Hooda had to withdraw his petition because he did not first contact the PMO as required by law. He has now sent them an email and is preparing to return to court to seek answers.
“I want them to post information on their site – how much money they received, where and where they spent it,” he said.
“It is well known that sunlight is the best disinfectant and all unwanted activities are carried out under cover of darkness. Transparency is the foundation of the rule of law, and opacity feels the hidden motive.”
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