The Delhi High Court today listed for hearing on January 31 pleas concerning the legal status of the Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund or PM CARES Fund under the Constitution and the Right to Information Act.
A bench of Chief Justice Satish Chandra Sharma and Justice Subramonium Prasad also granted four weeks’ time to the Centre to file its reply in the matter in terms of an earlier order passed by the court.
In July, the court had asked the Centre to file a “detailed and exhaustive” reply on the petition by Samyak Gangwal seeking to declare the PM CARES Fund a ‘State’ under Article 12 of the Constitution to ensure transparency in its functioning.
The court had then noted that only a one-page reply was filed to such an “important issue” and said it wanted an extensive response by the government.
Another petition filed by the same petitioner seeks to declare the fund a ‘public authority’ under the Right to Information (RTI) Act. It is also pending in the court which had earlier sought the Centre’s reply on it.
An affidavit filed by an Under Secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) who is discharging his functions in the PM Cares Trust on an honorary basis in response to the 2021 petition, has said the trust functions with transparency and its funds are audited by an auditor – a chartered accountant drawn from the panel prepared by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India.
It has contended that irrespective of the status of the PM CARES Fund under the Constitution and the RTI Act, it is not permissible to disclose third party information.
The Centre has said that all donations received by the trust are received via online payments, cheques or demand drafts and the amount received is audited with the audited report and the expenditure of the trust fund displayed on the website.
The officer, who had filed the affidavit, has also said he was discharging his functions in the PM CARES Trust on an honorary basis which was a charitable trust not created by or under the Constitution or by any law made by Parliament or by any State legislature.
In support of his contention that the PM CARES Fund is a ‘State’, the petitioner has said it was formed by the Prime Minister on March 27, 2020 to extend assistance to the citizens of India in the wake of COVID-19.
The trustees of the fund are the Prime Minister, Defence Minister, Home Minister and the Finance Minister and immediately after the formation of the fund, the Centre through its high government functionaries represented that the fund was set up and operated by the Government of India, the petitioner has submitted.
“The representations also included the use of government resources such as – use of “http://gov.in”gov.in’ domain name, State Emblem of India and the name ‘Prime Minister’ and its abbreviation on the PM Cares Fund website and in other official and unofficial communications.
“Further, the official address of the PM CARES Fund was stated to be the Prime Minister’s Office South Block, New Delhi…,” the petition has said.
Based on these representations, huge donations were received by the PM CARES Fund and as per the information provided on its website during the financial year 2019-20, an amount of ₹ 3076.62 crore was collected merely within four days, it has submitted.
“The petitioner is not attributing or even alleging any wrongdoing whatsoever on the part of the present Ex-Officio trustees of the PM CARES Fund. However, since the PM CARES Fund’s trustees are high government functionaries, it is essential that checks and balances envisioned in Part III of the Constitution are put in the place on the functioning of the fund to extinguish any chance of an allegation of ‘quid pro quo’,” the plea has said.