PM-CARES Promised Rs 100 Crore for Vaccine Development. Where Did That Money Go?
There is no clarity on whom the PM-CARES Fund gave this money to, or whether it was even transferred or not.
The PM-CARES Fund was supposed to provide Rs 100 crore for ‘vaccine development.’ Where did that money go?
More than 18 months after the Prime Minister’s Office published an official release that PM-CARES was allocating Rs 100 crore for ‘vaccine development’ work, there is no clarity on whom the PM-CARES Fund gave this money to, or whether it was even transferred or not.
Where is the Money? Which Agency Did it Go To?
On 13 May 2020, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) published an official release on the website of the Government of India’s Press Information Bureau (PIB).
It said, “To support the COVID-19 vaccine designers and developers, an amount of Rs. 100 Crore will be given from PM CARES Fund as a helping hand to catalyse vaccine development, which will be utilized under the supervision of Principal Scientific Advisor.”
But Right to Information (RTI) requests to the government to identify whom the Rs 100 crore was transferred to have hit a dead end with several institutions including the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), the government's COVID-19 Vaccine Administration Cell (CVAC) and others saying that they didn’t receive the funds. So, who did?
What’s more, the Principal Scientific Adviser’s office has told The Quint that it wasn’t involved in supervising this project, contrary to what the PMO’s announcement had stated.
And then there’s the question of how the government keeps saying that the government has nothing to do with PM-CARES since it isn’t a public authority, but then the announcement for the allocation of money from the Fund was made by the Prime Minister’s Office and posted on the website of the Press Information Bureau, Government of India.
There’s clearly a lot to unpack, so let’s get started.
Shunted Around to Various Departments, Yet Questions Go Unanswered
Curious about where the promised Rs 100 crore had gone, transparency campaigner and Indian Navy veteran Commodore Lokesh Batra had filed an RTI application with the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.
To put it simply, Batra had asked -
How much money did the Government of India get from PM-CARES for ‘vaccine development’?
And which organisations or entities did that money go to?
The RTI request by Batra had been filed on 16 July 2021 with the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.
In response, the Health Ministry’s COVID-19 Vaccine Administration Cell (CVAC) said that it didn’t get the funds. The RTI was also internally transferred to the PMO, ICMR and Department of Biotechnology for responses.
The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) categorically stated that it did not receive the said funds from PM-CARES.
The PMO disposed of the RTI request, reiterating its stand that the PM CARES Fund is not a public authority.
And the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), under the Ministry of Science and Technology, instead of answering the query, transferred the RTI to the NITI Aayog, indicating that the DBT too may not have got the funds.
The NITI Aayog, without giving any answer themselves, transferred the RTI right back to the Department of Health and Family Welfare.
The RTI was also transferred internally to the Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation, which said it “has no role with respect to funding and budget allocation for vaccine development.”
A Lengthy Appeal Process, And No Resolution Either
On 18 August, more than a month after he had filed the original RTI request, Batra filed an RTI appeal because the details he had asked for had not been provided yet.
He didn’t get any response.
Unfazed, he followed up by sending as many as seven reminders to the First Appellate Authority (FAA) - on 17 September, 27 September, 30 September, 6 October, 11 October, 20 October, and 27 October.
He then sent across a strongly-worded email on 10 November, marking the Nodal Officer of the RTI Cell among others. He requested their intervention on the appeal which wasn’t being responded to despite multiple reminders to the FAA.
“Today is 118th day of RTI request and 85th day of appeal. No response and information received from the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) as well as First Appellate Authority (FAA),” read Batra’s letter.
Two days after Batra’s escalation, the FAA finally responded detailing the institutions and agencies to which the RTI had been forwarded.
Additionally, the FAA stated that the Health Promotion & Education (HPE) Division of the Health Ministry had also said that it didn’t get the funds.
Which still left the question - so, where did the funds go? Four months of an RTI request being tossed around to various relevant government departments, and the RTI appeal being waited for, couldn't yet provide an answer to that question.
Named by PMO as Supervisor of PM-CARES Contribution, But Principal Scientific Adviser’s Office Says Decision Changed Later
The PMO had announced that the Principal Scientific Adviser to the government would supervise the utilisation of the 100 crore rupees from PM-CARES.
So, we reached out to Principal Scientific Adviser K Vijayraghavan to check with him if at least he knew whether the money had indeed been transferred.
Here is what his office had to say.
“In discussions following the announcement, it was felt that the speediest way to ensure delivery of resources for vaccine development will be through the Department of Biotechnology and its PSU, BIRAC. Consequently, vaccine development has been stimulated by this direct method.”Ayesha Chaudhary, Officer on Special Duty (OSD), Office of the Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India
It’s important to remember here that the government had already internally transferred the RTI request to the Department of Biotechnology, which instead of replying, had transferred it further to NITI Aayog.
So, was the Department of Biotechnology the beneficiary of the supposed Rs 100 crore contribution by PM-CARES?
The Quint has reached out to the Department for a response, but they are yet to provide one.
We have also reached out to the PMO, the Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC), the National Institute of Virology, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), the Finance Ministry, Bharat Biotech, Serum Institute of India and Biological E., to see if any of these entities can provide any details whatsoever into where this money went, and whether it was utilised.
Responding to our queries, the Director of the ICMR’s National Institute of Virology said, “Unfortunately, I am not aware of these details and will be unable to help in this regard.”
The DRDO replied saying, "DRDO was not involved in COVID-19 vaccine development."
Is There No Accountability For These Funds?
Look, we’re not saying that the PM-CARES Fund definitely didn’t transfer the 100 crore rupees as announced by the PMO. All we’re asking is - why don’t we know where this money went? This entire process just shows us how opaque fund allocation and transfer is when it comes to the PM-CARES Fund.
It’s an entity which the Modi government has said in court is
not a “public authority”
not under the ambit of the RTI Act
and “not a part of business or function of the central government in any manner”.
Yet, it is the same PM-CARES Fund whose decisions of fund allocation are announced by the Prime Minister’s Office and published on the website of the Press Information Bureau, Government of India.
But when the PMO is asked to provide details about that fund allocation, PM-CARES is said to be a non-public authority.
The question that remains then, once again, is - where did the Rs 100 Crore that the PMO said PM-CARES was providing for vaccine development go? And is there anyone in the government we can hold accountable to answer that?
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