When it comes to transparency and responding to RTI queries on the funds collected and spent by the Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situation Fund (PM CARES FUND) – the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) repeatedly refuses information on grounds that PM CARES is not a public authority but a public charitable trust and so, does not come under RTI.
However, when it comes to using government machinery to collect funds for PM CARES, the PMO has left no stone unturned.
A series of RTIs filed by transparency activist Commodore Lokesh Batra (Retd), with Indian Embassies and High Commissions in 27 countries, reveal that all of them publicised PM CARES on their websites and social media platforms.
The list includes embassies in several major countries such as England, USA, China, Japan, Korea, Germany, France, Sweden, and even Pakistan.
On 30 March 2020, the Prime Minister held a video conference focused on COVID-19 with the heads of Indian embassies across the world.
The Ministry of External Affairs in its press release said that at this meeting, the PM reportedly “advised Heads of Mission to suitably publicize PM-CARES FUND, a public charitable trust, to mobilize donations from abroad”. Do note that PM Modi is the Chairman of PM CARES.
RTI replies show that following the PM’s “advice”, all 27 embassies did publicise the PM CARES FUND on their websites and social media platforms. Some even shared the names of donors who had responded. But the fact is, India’s embassies are not expected to do so publicity for charitable trusts.
Here are the details from the RTI reply given by the Indian Embassy in Qatar,
It also said that 2 companies based in Qatar and 22 Embassy staff members had donated to the PM CARES FUND. However, they did not share the amount donated.
India's embassy in Japan revealed that it circulated information on PM CARES with 45 listed Indian associations in Japan and publicised PM CARES on its website.
The embassy further mentioned that a multinational Japanese company, NISSEI ASB Machine Co. Ltd., was keen to donate to PM CARES.
Now, NISSEI ASB has a branch in Maharashtra as well.
The Quint has accessed a letter dated 16 April 2020, written by the general manager of NISSEI ASB to a Ministry of External Affairs official, offering help to COVID-hit people in India. The letter said, “We would like to support such people, provide daily commodities such as food & water.”
However, hear this line from the letter,
We wrote to their general manager, who confirmed that NISSEI ASB did donate to PM CARES. They said,
But the reply is interestingly worded – the general manager sees the donation to PM CARES as a donation to the Government of India, and not to a charitable trust.
And that’s the point we’ve been making – since several donors may naturally see a donation to PM CARES as a donation to the Indian government, should it not come under the RTI and be open to public scrutiny?
Next, look at the RTI response from the Indian Embassy in China, which says,
The RTI shows that information about PM CARES was shared by the Indian Embassy even via Chinese apps, which are now banned in India, such as WeChat and Weibo.
India’s High Commission in Pakistan also replied to the RTI query, saying it did communicate messages related to the PM CARES Fund. But added that no private individuals, organisations or NRIs were contacted for donation.
RTI replies show that even the Ministry of External Affairs did send communications on publicising the PM CARES Fund to the Heads of Embassies and Commissions worldwide through a “closed channel, not in public domain”.
Now here’s another key point – when COVID was at its peak in India, on 29 September 2020, the amended Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Amendment Act (FCRA) was made effective.
The government’s stated aim was to amend the FCRA, make it more stringent and bring in more transparency, control and accountability. The government had also asserted, over the time, that some NGOs were allegedly misusing foreign funding, hence the FCRA amendment was required.
Being a public charitable trust, that has received foreign funds, PM CARES should also come under the FCRA Act. But it has been exempted by the Finance Ministry. Why? No one knows, because the Finance Ministry has simply refused to share such information under RTI.
This leaves us with some key questions:
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Published: 15 Dec 2020,07:59 PM IST