The Supreme Court upheld the validity of the PM CARES Fund, adding that its collections need to not be redirected to the National Disaster Relief Fund (NDRF). The judgment also added that the fund’s administration in the hands of ex-officio chairman Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the defence, finance and home ministers as ex-officio trustees, gives it a public character.
The apex court dismissed the plea by an NGO called Centre for Public Interest Litigation (CPIL), which had claimed that setting up the PM CARES Fund is a violation of the Disaster Management Act, in which Section 46(1)(b) dictates that all present and future collections have to be compulsorily credited to NDRF.
The plea had also questioned the need to create this fund as a National Disaster Relief Fund had already been formed under the National Disaster Management Act, 2005. Arguing on CPIL’s behalf, senior advocate Dushyant Dave submitted PM CARES Fund should not have been constituted when NDRF is already in place to take care of disasters.
It had further pointed out that the fund is not subject to audit by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India or open to queries under the Right to Information Act. The plea added that the Centre has been “refraining from divulging information about the specific utilisation of crores of rupees that have been contributed to the PM CARES Fund till date”. While NDRF lies under the CAG’s ambit, a private auditor was hired for PM CARES amid Opposition leaders raising criticism over its transparency.
CPIL also said that a National Plan to deal with the pandemic must be prepared and implemented under Sections 10 and 11 of the DM Act. The plea pointed out that the latest National Plan is from 2019 and it does not deal comprehensively with the unprecedented coronavirus outbreak.
It sought the formation of an expert body to draft a National Plan, which should have a detailed mechanism for lockdown measures, state-Centre coordination, public transport and essential activities and social distancing norms “keeping in mind the predicament of the lower strata of the society”. The plan needs to be formulated after due consultation with the states, considering that the nationwide lockdown is beginning to be lifted, the petition said.
During the hearing, senior advocate Kapil Sibal said corporate contributors are lured to donate to PM-CARES because they can avail of corporate social responsibility (CSR) benefits, which is not possible in the case of donations to state-level funds set up by chief ministers.
Dave also highlighted that while nobody’s bonafides were under the scanner, the only question was pertaining to the circumventing of the law for setting up of the PM CARES Fund.
The court ruled that “it is still open for any person or institution to make contribution to the NDRF”, guidelines for the audit of which have been defined under Disaster Management Act, 2005. It added that the PM CARES Fund, which is a public charitable trust and not a government fund, is voluntary and open for contributions from any person or institution and is not under CAG’s ambit.
The PM CARES Fund was set up on 28 March by the Centre as a public charitable trust to deal with any kind of emergency or distress such as that posed by COVID-19. It was earlier revealed through a Right to Information response received by a lawyer that the Fund does not come under the scope of “public authority” under the RTI Act.
With inputs from PTI