In Prime Ministers National Relief v. Aseem Takyar, the Court stated that:
“citizens have a right to know about the management of a fund which is used for benign purposes, inter alia, like providing relief in times of the natural disasters and emergency situations. A disclosure of such information will ensure that the voluntary donations made by the citizen body is not appropriated by any government official. In this regard, the disclosure of the information sought by the petitioner indeed serves a public purpose.”
The PM CARES (Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations) Fund is a public charitable trust, created by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) with the primary objective of providing relief to the affected during any kind of emergency situation, like the COVID-19 pandemic. The trust was registered on March 27. The very next day, on March 28, the Ministry of Corporate Affairs issued an office memorandum qualifying PM-CARES as a corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiative to receive corporate donations. The fund also got exemption under the FCRA and a separate account for receiving foreign donations had been opened.
As the foundation stone of the fund is public interest, the contributors (people of India) of the fund have a ‘right to know’ about the money collected and spent through it.
IndiaSpend has derived the Rs 9,677.9 crore figure by tabulating press releases on the government’s Press Information Bureau website, and from media reports on private companies and individuals donating and/or pledging money to the fund. The actual corpus would be higher. Of Rs 9,677.9 crore, Rs 4,308.3 crore has been donated by government agencies and staff. Of this, at least Rs 438.8 crore has been deducted as one-day’s salary of government employees.
Also, the Supreme Court relying upon Thalappalam Service Coop. Bank Ltd. v. State of Kerala held that “substantial” under the RTI Act means a large or considerable value, and not necessarily the majority amount.
The Prime Minister himself is the ex-officio chairman of the fund, and all those seconded to the office of the fund hold public office and have sole discretion over the management and disbursement of the Fund. Moreover, it has to be emphasized that the appeal to generosity (in seeking donation) inherent through the nature of the fund is the confidence and trust that millions of donors repose in the Prime Minister and the office of the Prime Minister of India.
The donor consequently might be convinced that their donations would reach deserving beneficiaries or causes.
Nevertheless, the government is not ready to accept that the body as a public authority, and hence the disclosure of information is not allowed under Right to Information Act, 2005. This was used as a basis for rejecting 2 RTIs which had asked for details various information related to the fund including the total amount deposited, the total amount spent to date etc. and the constitution of the PM CARES Fund . A PIL was dismissed by the Supreme Court and it was further held that the money will not be transferred to the National Disaster Relief Fund. Considering that national disaster management is reflected in the very objectives of the establishment of the fund, that clearly seems unwarranted.
The trust deed of the fund was made public in December 2020 on the fund’s website and it does not define it as a government trust but a private trust. This in contravention to the documents accessed through an RTI query which revealed that the Ministry of Corporate Affairs, while issuing the March 28 Office Memorandum, defined PM-CARES as a “fund set up by the central government”. But according to the trust deed then, the PM-CARES should not have been eligible for corporate donations.
The government later contradicted itself in a new Right to Information reply, in the same month, with the center stating that the PM-CARES or the Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations fund is a body “owned and established” by the government. It also said that PM-CARES does not come under the RTI act because it receives funds from private sources.
In January 2021, around 100 former civil servants wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday, raising concerns about transparency revolving around the PM-CARES Fund. The letter, said for ‘reasons of probity and adherence to standards of public accountability’, it is necessary that the financial details of receipts and expenditures be made available and “It is essential that the position and stature of the Prime Minister is kept intact by ensuring total transparency in all dealings the Prime Minister is associated with.”
Recently, the Expenditure Secretary shared that the PM-CARES fund has contributed over Rs 2,200 crore towards for the first phase of the Covid-19 vaccination drive, which is looking to vaccinate frontline healthcare workers. This still leads to unaccountability of atleast Rs 7,000 crore.
Thus, if the current order is not reviewed, it would defeat the entire purpose of the creation of the fund. Also, the fund is not audited by Comptroller and Auditor General’s office but it is audited by an independent auditor outside of the government. Hence, PM CARES Fund should be treated as a public authority in the interest of larger public interest so as to maintain transparency.
This post was written by Samridhi Seth (III year)
 Centre for Public Interest Litigation v. Union of India WRIT PETITION (CIVIL) NO.546 OF 2020
 D.A.V. College Trust & Management Society v. Director of Public Instructions, (2019) 9 SCC 185.
 (2013) 16 SCC 82.
 2018 SCC OnLine Del 9191.