Coronavirus: secrecy involves the Covid-19 fund of Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi

A fund set up by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to combat Covid-19 is now involved in controversy and concern over an alleged lack of transparency, writes BBC’s Geeta Pandey in Delhi.

On March 27, just a few days after India initiated a nationwide blockade to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Narendra Modi created the Prime Minister’s Fund for Citizen Assistance and Aid to Citizens in Emergency Situations. The PM Cares Fund, for short.

A day later, Modi appealed to “all Indians” to donate.

“It is my appeal to my Indian colleagues, to kindly contribute to the PM-Cares Fund,” he tweeted, telling the nation that his donations would strengthen India’s struggle against Covid-19 and “similar distressing situations” in the future.

“This will go a long way towards creating a healthier India,” he wrote.

Donations have arrived – from industrialists, celebrities, businesses and ordinary men. In one week, according to reports, donations reached 65 billion rupees ($ 858 million; £ 689 million). The fund is now believed to have exceeded 100 billion rupees.

But PM Cares has been controversial from the start. Many questioned the need for a new fund when a similar one – the PM National Relief Fund or PMNRF – has existed in the country since 1948.

Medical staff wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) gear walk through a market for a door-to-door screening inside a Mumbai slum
Source: BBC

Sonia Gandhi, leader of the Congressional opposition party, suggested that the money raised be transferred to the PMNRF. Congress also suggested that the fund be used for the well-being of migrants.

On the day PM Cares was created, a huge humanitarian crisis began to occur in India – millions of migrant workers, some of India’s poorest people, started fleeing the cities after Modi imposed a sudden blockade across the country. For weeks, they walked hundreds of kilometers, hungry and thirsty, to reach their villages. Over a hundred died.

It is thought that the government would spend at least part of the money helping the forced ones to travel, but that did not happen, prompting an opposition parliamentarian to rename the fund as “Prime Minister Doesn’t Really Care”.

In the weeks since the fund was created, questions were also asked about how it is constituted and managed, how much money was collected, from whom and how is it being used?

There are no answers to any of these questions on the PM Cares website, and the office of the Prime Minister (PMO), which manages the fund, declined to provide any information. Now opposition politicians, independent activists and journalists are asking whether the government has anything to hide?

The petitions were filed under the Right to Information Law (RTI) and in the courts, seeking greater transparency. But so far, the fund has avoided any public scrutiny by insisting that PM Cares is not a “public authority”, meaning that it is not controlled or substantially financed by the government and is therefore not covered by the RTI Act. It also means that it cannot be audited by government auditors.

“It is absurd to say that PM Cares is not a public authority,” law student Kandukuri Sri Harsh told the BBC. “Millions of people have not donated to the fund thinking it is a private fund. The money was collected with the strength of the prime minister’s name.”

Kandukuri was one of the first to seek information with an RTI application, filed on April 1, requesting documents on how the trust was built and how it is operated.

Migrant workers in India's capital Delhi during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown
Source: BBC

He offered several arguments as to why the fund should be a public authority:

  • It is controlled by the government – the prime minister is the president, three of his cabinet colleagues are trustees and the remaining three trustees are appointed by the prime minister.
  • The PM Cares website is hosted by “gov.in” – the official government domain
  • The fund uses the national emblem of India, which only government entities can use
  • It is “substantially financed” by the government – all members of the BJP have been asked to donate 10 million rupees from their constituent fund, which is a constitutionally established fund; government-controlled public sector companies donated hundreds of millions of rupees; and the day’s wages of soldiers, civil servants and judges were compulsorily donated to the fund.

“Why is the government preventing it?” Mr. Kandukuri said. “What can there be to hide in it?”

A lot, said Saket Gokhale, an activist and former journalist, who described the fund as “the government’s Achilles heel, a blatant farce”.

Modi’s party colleagues denied any wrongdoing regarding the fund. Recently, after weeks of questions about how the money was being used, the prime minister’s office said it was spending 20 billion rupees to buy 50,000 fans, 10 billion rupees for the well-being of migrants and 1 billion rupees for the development of vaccines.

But the funding allocated to migrants was criticized for being “too little, too late”, and the choice of fans also had problems.

“There were no bids for fans, no bidding process, everything was very arbitrary,” said Gokhale.

And last week, a report said that two government-appointed panels signaled concerns about the reliability and capacity of 10,000 fans purchased under PM Cares.

Gokhale also questioned the choice of SARC & Associates, the private company that was chosen to audit the fund. The company was appointed by Mr. Modi to audit the PMNRF in March 2018 without a bidding process.

“The only thing he has to offer is his deep connections with the BJP,” said Gokhale. “SK Gupta, who leads, is an advocate for BJP policies, is the author of a book on Make in India, which is Modi’s pet project, and organizes quasi-government events abroad. He also contributed 20 million rupees for the prime minister. Cares Fund. This raises fears of suspicious audits. “

Gupta personally announced the contribution of 20 million rupees through his Twitter account. The BBC asked him to respond to allegations that SARC & Associates was chosen to audit the fund because of its ties to the BJP, but he declined to comment.

BJP spokesman Nalin Kohli defended the fund.

Kohli said that PMNRF was generally used for natural disasters, and the reason for creating PM Cares was to take a more focused approach to dealing with a pandemic. He stressed that the PMNRF, created by India’s first PM, Jawaharlal Nehru, included the chairman of the Congress party among the trustees.

“There are many political parties in the country and why should anyone be included in something that involves public funding for public purposes?”, He said.

He said that Modi and the other top ministers were involved with PM Cares because of their positions, not as representatives of any political party.

A medical staff checks on a ventilator at a newly inaugurated hospital by the Tamil Nadu state to fight COVID-19 coronavirus, in Chennai on March 27, 2020
Source: BBC

Kohli also rejected the charge that the fund lacked transparency. He insisted that SARC & Associates was “committed purely on merit” and that the fund would meet all legal requirements.

Concerns about the fund were being raised by a few of the opposition, he added. “It is a new fund, what is this urgent need for public accountability at a time when everyone is busy fighting a pandemic?”

But questions about the fund’s opacity are not being raised only by the opposition. Supreme Court lawyer Surender Singh Hooda, who had filed a petition in the Delhi court, described the fund managers’ apparent reluctance to disclose information as “unfathomable”.

Hooda had to withdraw his petition because he had not contacted the PMO as required by law. He has already sent them by e-mail and is preparing to return to court in search of answers.

“I want them to display information on their website – how much money they received, where and where they spent it from,” he said.

Kohli also rejected the charge that the fund lacked transparency. He insisted that SARC & Associates was “committed purely on merit” and that the fund would meet all legal requirements.

Concerns about the fund were being raised by a few of the opposition, he added. “It is a new fund, what is this urgent need for public accountability at a time when everyone is busy fighting a pandemic?”

But questions about the fund’s opacity are not being raised only by the opposition. Supreme Court lawyer Surender Singh Hooda, who had filed a petition in the Delhi court, described the fund managers’ apparent reluctance to disclose information as “unfathomable”.

Hooda had to withdraw his petition because he had not contacted the PMO as required by law. He has already sent them by e-mail and is preparing to return to court in search of answers.

“I want them to display information on their website – how much money they received, where and where they spent it from,” he said.

Kohli also rejected the charge that the fund lacked transparency. He insisted that SARC & Associates was “committed purely on merit” and that the fund would meet all legal requirements.

Concerns about the fund were being raised by a few of the opposition, he added. “It is a new fund, what is this urgent need for public accountability at a time when everyone is busy fighting a pandemic?”

But questions about the fund’s opacity are not being raised only by the opposition. Supreme Court lawyer Surender Singh Hooda, who had filed a petition in the Delhi court, described the fund managers’ apparent reluctance to disclose information as “unfathomable”.

Hooda had to withdraw his petition because he had not contacted the PMO as required by law. He has already sent them by e-mail and is preparing to return to court in search of answers.

“I want them to display information on their website – how much money they received, where and where they spent it from,” he said.

“It is well known that sunlight is the best disinfectant and all undesirable activities are carried out under the protection of darkness. Transparency is the basis of the rule of law, and opacity smells of ulterior motives.”

News Reporter

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