By Sharvari Lohakare
On Tuesday, the Appellate Authority of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) has clarified that the Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund (PM CARES Fund) is not a public authority under the Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI Act).
A social activist Saket Gokhale had filed an application on March 29 to seek the copy of the trust deed, trustees of the fund and also the exemption certificates granted to it under Section 12A and 80G of the Income Tax Act. On June 5, the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) disposed the application off stating that the fund was not a public authority under the RTI Act and all the relevant information is made available on the official website of the PM CARES Fund. Gokhale challenged this and filed a statutory appeal under the RTI Act, pointing out that the Prime Minister was the ex-officio chairman of the Funds and that as per the website, the Under Secretary (Funds) in the PMO is the honorary custodian of the matters related to the FUND. He further stated that the several public sector utilities like Indian Railways have contributed to the PM CARES FUNDS. Therefore, it became a public authority under Section 2(h) of the Act, as per which an entity substantially financed directly or indirectly by the government is a public authority, he argued. He also highlighted that Schedule VII of the Companies Act, 2013 was amended on May 29 to allow donations to PM CARES eligible to be counted as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) contributions. Without specifically addressing the arguments raised by Gokhale in the appeal, the Appellate Authority stated in the order passed on June 29 that, “Since PM CARES Fund is not a public authority under the ambit of Section 2(h) of the RTI Act, 2005, no further information could be shared with you”. It was also reiterated that the relevant information was available in the website. Gokhale was also told by the Authority that he could move the Central Information Commission within 90 days, if not satisfied with the response.
The PM CARES Fund was created on 28 March 2020, “with the primary objective of dealing with any kind of emergency or distress situation, like posed by the COVID-19 pandemic”. Prime Minister is the ex-officio Chairman of the PM CARES Fund and Minister of Defence, Minister of Home Affairs and Minister of Finance, Government of India are ex-officio Trustees of the Fund. Following the creation of the fund, opposition members raised many queries as to why a separate fund was needed when the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund was already there.
Holding thus, the Deputy Secretary of the PMO upheld the refusal of the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) to disclose information sought by social activist Saket Gokhalerelating to PM CARES Fund.