A fund set up by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to fight Covid-19 is now mired in controversy and concern over an alleged lack of transparency, writes the BBC’s Geeta Pandey in Delhi.
On 27 March, just days after India began a country-wide lockdown to halt the spread of the coronavirus, Narendra Modi set up the Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund. The PM Cares Fund, for short.
A day later, Mr Modi appealed to “all Indians” to donate.
“It is my appeal to my fellow Indians, kindly contribute to the PM-Cares Fund,” he tweeted, telling the nation that their donations would strengthen India’s fight against Covid-19 and “similar distressing situations” in future.
“This will go a long way in creating a healthier India,” he wrote.
Donations poured in – from industrialists, celebrities, companies and the common man. Within a week, reports said, donations had reached 65bn rupees ($858m; £689m). The fund is now believed to have exceeded 100bn rupees.
But PM Cares has been controversial from the start. Many questioned the need for a new fund when a similar one – PM National Relief Fund or PMNRF – has existed in the country since 1948.
Sonia Gandhi, the leader of the opposition Congress Party, suggested that the money raised should be transferred to PMNRF. Congress also suggested that the fund be used for the welfare of migrants.
On the day PM Cares was set up, a massive humanitarian crisis began to unfold in India – millions of migrant workers, some of India’s poorest people, began fleeing the cities after Mr Modi imposed a sudden country-wide lockdown. For weeks, they walked hundreds of miles, hungry and thirsty, to reach their villages. More than a 100 died.
It was thought that the government would spend at least some of the money helping those forced to travel, but that did not happen, prompting one opposition MP to rebrand the fund the “PM Does Not Really Care”.
In the weeks since the fund was set up, questions have also been asked about how it is constituted and managed, how much money has been collected, from whom, and how it is being put to use.
There are no answers to any of these queries on the PM Cares website, and the prime minister’s office (PMO), which is managing the fund, has refused to provide any information.
Now opposition politicians, independent activists and journalists are asking whether the government has anything to hide.
Petitions have been filed under the Right to Information (RTI) Act and in the courts, seeking more transparency.
But so far, the fund has avoided any public scrutiny by insisting that PM Cares is not a “public authority”, which means it’s not controlled or substantially financed by the government and so does not come under the RTI Act. It also means that it cannot be scrutinised by government auditors.
“It’s absurd to say the PM Cares is not a public authority,” Kandukuri Sri Harsh, a law student, told the BBC. “Millions of people did not donate to the fund thinking it’s a private trust. The money has been collected upon the strength of the prime minister’s name.”
Mr Kandukuri was among the first to seek information with an RTI application, filed on 1 April, requesting documents on how the trust was constituted and how it’s operated.