The outbreak of COVID-19 in India and the rapidly increasing number of cases, has forced the Health Care System in India to learn rapid lessons on telemedicine, protecting staff, and improving infrastructure to ensure COVID-19 treatment to all.
On an average in the treatment of a COVID patient without any life-saving equipment the expenditure amounts between Rs 20,000 – 25000 daily, tells a senior doctor at the Thiruvananthapuram medical college hospital to Hindustan Times. Also with the sudden coronavirus lockdown lakhs of people were left without food, shelter or income and were struck far away from their homes. To provide such costly medical facilities to the COVID patients, assistance to the weaker sections of the society affected by the lockdown and transportation to the migrants requires huge funds, which could not be met alone by the Government. At this need of hour, to meet the expenses amid the outbreak on March 28, 2020 the Prime Minister of India, Mr. Narendra Modi, has setup a public charitable fund, PM-CARES (Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations) Fund. The motive behind making this fund is to have a dedicated national fund with the primary objective of dealing with any kind of emergency or distress situation, as posed by COVID-19, and to provide relief to the affected. Since the establishment of PM- CARES Fund, it faced many criticism on the grounds that it lacks transparency and accountability in relation to its establishment, functioning and account, and that why do we need a new relief fund when we already have one, i.e., National Disaster Response Fund (NDRF) which is constituted under Section 46 of Disaster Management Act, 2005. The suspicions of the lawyers and activists raised when Prime Minister Office refused to provide details sought through a Right to Information Act application about how donations to PM-CARES Fund have been utilized. On August 19, 2020 Supreme Court dismissed a petition by an NGO, Center for Public Interest Litigation, for issuing direction for evolving new national relief plan under section-11 of Disaster Management Act to deal with the pandemic and seeking transfer of contributions in PM-CARES Fund to National Disaster Response Fund.
NGO Center for Public Interest Litigation filed a Public Interest Litigation Petition before the Supreme Court of India, for issuing direction for evolving new national relief plan to deal with COVID-19 and seeking transfer of contributions in PM-CARES Fund to National Disaster Response Fund. They claimed that the PM-CARES Fund was setup in violation of the legal mandate under the Disaster Management Act and that it is a fraud on the constitution. PM-CARES Fund is also not subject to audit by Comptroller and Auditor General of India, rather it will be scrutinized by private auditors and also that it has been declared to be outside the purview of the RTI Act by not being under the definition of ‘public authority’. In a nut shell the PM-CARES Fund lack total transparency and accountability on the part of public who has contributed to it.
How NDRF is different from PM-CARES Fund?
1. NDRF is a statutory fund made under section 46 of Disaster Management Act, 2005; whereas PM-CARES Fund is a public charitable fund having no statutory backup.
2. NDRF is placed in the Public Account of Government of India under “reserve funds not bearing interest”; whereas PM-CARES Fund is not placed under any of three funds made under the Constitution, i.e., Consolidated Fund of India, Public Account of India and Contingency Fund of India.
3. NDRF is maintained by the Central Government of India for meeting the expenses for emergency response, relief and rehabilitation occurred due to any threatening disaster situation or disaster; whereas PM-CARES Fund is maintained by a Trust, whose members are Prime Minister, Defence Minister, Home Minister and Finance Minister.
4. Contribution to NDRF is made by levying of a cess on certain items, chargeable to excise and customs duty, and approved annually through the Finance Bill of Budget. Since July 2020, Central Government has allowed contribution from any person or institution in NDRF; whereas PM-CARES Fund is financed through the public individuals and institutions.
5. NDRF is audited by Comptroller and Auditor General; whereas the PM-CARES Fund will audited by private auditors.
Supreme Court while rejecting the contentions of the petitioner dismissed the petition and held that:-
1. There is no requirement for the formulating and implementing new National Disaster Relief Plan under section-12 of Disaster Management Act for COVID-19 and that the prior guidelines issued under the section-12 for providing minimum standards of relief are enough.
2. The PM-CARES Fund is a public charitable trust registered under Registration Act, 1998 constituted with an objective to provide assistance in the wake COVID-19. It does not receive any budgetary support or any Government money, and the contributions made to it are voluntary and are the funds of a public charitable trust and there are no occasions for issuing any direction to transfer these funds to the NDRF.
3. There are no statutory restrictions in making any contributing to NDRF by an individual and that the Union Government is free to utilize it in providing assistance in combating COVID-19 in accordance with the guidelines issued for administration of NDRF.
4. The nature of NDRF and PM-CARES Fund are entirely different from each other. NDRF is a government fund and the guidelines issued under Disaster Management Act specifically provide for audit of the NDRF by the Auditor and Comptroller General of India, whereas for a public charitable trust like PM-CARES Fund there is no occasion for the audit by the Auditor and Comptroller General of India.
The outbreak has shaken the pillars of nation’s economy and with a degrading economy it would not possible for the government in such emergent situation to meet all expenses alone. Government requires monetary as well as moral support from the side of public. Thus in such crucial time, the formation of PM-CARES Fund and the wisdom of the trustees, to create a fund which was constituted with the motive to extend assistance in the wake of public health emergency as posed COVID-19, should not questioned.
This blog is authored by Harsh Srivastava