The process of setting up the Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations (PM CARES) Fund did not involve a discussion in the Union cabinet of ministers nor an approval from it, reveals a response from the cabinet secretariat to an RTI application.
A query was made by activist Anjali Bhardwaj before the cabinet secretariat under the Right to Information Act, on June 17, 2020, seeking information on dates on which the cabinet discussed the PM CARES Fund. She also sought a copy of all the relevant files.
However, a reply by the cabinet secretariat, furnished on June 29, 2020, stated that it was never on the agenda of any of the meetings of the Union cabinet. “As per inputs received from office, there was no agenda item in any cabinet meeting specifically related to creation of PM CARES Fund,” stated the cabinet secretariat in its reply.
The response suggests that the decision to set up the fund was not preceded by a discussion by the cabinet and hence did not have its approval.
Bhardwaj pointed out that the documents from the ministry of corporate affairs relied on the fact that the fund has been set up by the Central government to approve it for CSR funding. “Appears odd that the decision to set up a body in which the PM is the chair in ex-officio capacity and three ministers are trustees, in ex-officio capacity, did not go through the cabinet,” she said.
While disposing of the RTI application, the cabinet secretariat also transferred the plea to the prime minister’s office, which responded on July 3, saying the fund is not a public authority under the ambit of Section 2(h) of the RTI Act, 2005.
Another RTI application was made to the ministry of law and justice on June 18, 2020, requesting information on whether the comments of the ministry were sought on the fund and a copy of the relevant correspondence. Even after two months of the query, no response has been provided.
Meanwhile, Bhardwaj moved an RTI application in the labour ministry on June 18, 2020, seeking details regarding the Rs 1000 crore amount from the fund that has been allocated for the welfare of migrant labourers. The query sought information such as funds provided to each state and Union territory, guidelines with regard to utilisation of funds, and details of whether views of the ministry were sought regarding fund allocation. The plea was transferred to the PMO, which refused information, stating that the fund was not a public authority under the RTI Act.
A similar RTI application was filed with the chief labour commissioner on June 18, 2020, which transferred it to the labour ministry and thus began a series of back and forth between the authorities. Finally, the office of the chief labour commissioner, to whom the original RTI was filed, replied on August 18, 2020, after it circled back to them by being transferred five times. The reply states that no such information is available.
“The manner in which the RTI application has been dealt with is a violation of the Act, as they should have transferred the application to whoever has the necessary information as required under Section 6(3) of the RTI Act,” said Bhardwaj.