On March 28, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the creation of a separate fund to deal with COVID-19 — the Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund (PM CARES). Observers were quick to question the need for a separate fund, when India already had an established Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund (PMNRF). The PMNRF is more representative of the concerns of Indians: Its committee includes, among others, the Prime Minister, the President of India and the president of the Indian National Congress. Decision-makers for PM CARES include the Prime Minister, the finance minister, the Minister of Home Affairs and the Minister of Defence, all from one political party.
The PMNRF had an unused corpus of Rs 3,800.44 crore as of 2019. Despite this, Modi established the PM CARES fund and solicited donations for it. Reportedly, the Indian Railway donated Rs 151 crore. The army, navy and air force, defence PSUs and employees of the defence ministry have collectively donated Rs 500 crore. While a significant portion of these contributions has been voluntary, it appears that many government employees weren’t given much of a choice.
Circulars were being issued in various government departments, “urging” employees to contribute one day’s salary each month or give their objection in writing. The implication seemed ominous: Anyone objecting to this “voluntary contribution” could find themselves in a spot, even face retaliatory action.
When donations are made from taxpayer funds by government bodies, the public has the right to know where the money is going. This is where the most problematic issue with PM CARES arises — its lack of transparency. The Modi government has stated that the CAG will not audit the fund. Rather, it will be audited by independent auditors appointed by the trust. The PMO has also refused to make the documents related to the PM CARES fund public. If the government has nothing to hide, why not allow the CAG to audit it?