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Modi's ‘mother of democracy’ talk develops clay feet: RTI plea on PM Cares funds

By Rosamma Thomas* 

Prime Minister Modi often refers to India as the “mother of democracy”, arguing that the democratic spirit is ingrained in the very DNA of the nation. For democracy to thrive, though, citizens should be aware of the ways in which government funds are utilized, and the procedures through which decisions are arrived at by the government. 
There is a reluctance to share such information on the part of the Modi government, even though Section 4 of the Right to Information Act, 2005, provides for proactive disclosure of information.
The last available audited statement of accounts for the PM CARES (Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations) Fund, available on its website, shows receipts and payments for the year ended March 2022 – of the Rs 10,990 crore received, only a third, or Rs 3,976 crore was spent; over Rs 7,000 crore remained as unspent balance. 
Ideally, under provisions of proactive disclosure of information under the Right to Information, citizens of India ought to be kept informed about the whereabouts of this sum of money, since PM Cares Fund was set up in March 2020 to raise funds to meet demands made by the pandemic. 
The government, however, has insisted that since the fund is financed by donations from individuals and organizations – domestic and foreign – and not funded by the government, and is run by private individuals operating as trustees, it is not a “public authority” and does not fall under the purview of the Right to Information Act, 2005.
Now that the pandemic is past, it is unclear what will be done with the unspent funds. PM Cares is not audited by the Comptroller and Accountant General of India, but by a firm of chartered accountants, M/S SARC Associates. The audit is supposed to be conducted at the end of the financial year, but the audited statement for 2022-23 has not yet been uploaded on the website of the trust.
Commodore Lokesh Batra, who has been pursuing transparency in this fund, pointed out that the fund has a website allotted to it on the server of the Government of India; officials from the Prime Minister’s Office man the activities of the trust; the trustees are the prime minister, the Union ministers of home and finance and a few others. When the prime minister, Union home and finance ministers serve as trustees, how can the fund be private, and beyond scrutiny by citizens of India?
Commodore Lokesh Batra filed Right to Information requests with the Commissioner of Income Tax to ascertain whether the fund has exemptions from Income Tax. He was denied access to information on the ground that what he sought was exempted from disclosure under Section 8 of the Right to Information Act. 
In his appeal before the Central Information Commission, Commodore Batra explained that Section 8 pertains only to personal information, and does not cover a public charitable trust, as the PM Cares Fund was described, under its purview.
Commodore Batra
Since the administration of the trust is carried out by government officials and since the trustees are also mainly Union ministers with key portfolios, there is great public interest in the functioning of the trust; activities of the trust occur with expenses drawn from tax revenues, so it is only right that citizens be informed.
In 2019, Commodore Batra filed an application seeking to examine files of the Department of Personnel and Training of the Government of India, pertaining to the appointment of information commissioners in the Central Information Commission. He found that the documents were not being released fully under the RTI Act, and several pages of the communication that he sought were being withheld, with no proper reason assigned for the redaction.
The Central Information Commission, on hearing his appeal for complete information, noted: “The conduct of the then link CPIO amounts to a gross violation of the RTI Act and is a clear case of sheer non-application of mind.”
“Non-application of mind” was evident also in Prime Minister Modi’s recent trip to the United States, where video footage showed him reading a prepared speech to US President Biden, using notes from a diary in his lap. President Biden patiently served as PM Modi’s one-man audience. 
Given that PM Modi never interacts with the press in India, it was perhaps only to be expected that he would gulp water and beat about the bush when asked pointed questions about the rights of minority communities and freedom of speech. It is rather late in the day already, but even now, the Prime Minister can decide to end his monthly Man Ki Baat series and meet the press in India at least once in a fortnight. 
If nothing else, those interactions will help make claims of India being the “mother of democracy” sound less hollow.
---
*Freelance journalist 

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