Mar 11, 2022

The PM CARES Fund and its lack of transparency

The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) has denied a Right to Information (RTI) request related to the PM CARES Fund, claiming that providing the information will “disproportionately divert the resources of the office.” The RTI application had requested details about the total number of RTI applications and appeals received and disposed by the PMO, with regard to the PM CARES Fund.

The Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations (PM CARES) Fund is a public charitable trust that was set up to accept donations and provide relief during the COVID-19 pandemic, and other similar emergencies. 

Earlier this year, the PMO had refused to disclose details on the creation and operation of the PM CARES Fund, claiming that the fund is not a “public authority” under the Right To Information Act, 2005 (RTI Act). 

What is a public authority?

Under Section 2(h) of the RTI Act, “public authority” means any authority established by: 

(a) the Constitution; 

(b) law made by Parliament; 

(c) law made by State Legislature; 

(d) notification/order issued by the government. 

This includes any government body, or a body that is under government control. It also covers bodies that get most of their funding from the government (including non-governmental organisations).

Is the PM CARES Fund a public authority?

The PM CARES Fund consists entirely of donations from people or entities and does not get any money from the government. 

However, the Prime Minister is the Chairman of the Fund, and the Minister of Defence, Minister of Home Affairs and Minister of Finance are trustees. As the Chairperson of the Board of Trustees, the Prime Minister also has the power to nominate three other trustees to the board. On the face of it, this seems to indicate some governmental control over the Fund, even if no money comes from the government. It is only by establishing the Fund as a “public authority” that citizens can get detailed information on its operation and working.

Why has the PMO denied the RTI request?

Section 7(9) of the RTI Act says that information should normally be provided in the form in which it is sought, unless:

  1. a) it disproportionately diverts the resources of the public authority; or
  2. b) it is damaging to the safety or preservation of the record.

The PMO’s Chief Public Information Officer denied the RTI request saying that the information sought by the RTI application is not maintained in the office in a compiled form. Its collection and compilation would disproportionately divert the resources of the office from the efficient discharge of its normal functions.

However, in a 2010 judgement, the Kerala High Court in Treesa Irish v. Central Public Information Officer said that Section 7(9) cannot be used to deny RTI information. It does not give a public authority the power to withhold information, or claim that any information is exempt from disclosure. It only allows the public authority to provide the information in a form other than the form in which the information is sought for.

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