PM CARES Fund: Centre inflicts big blow on RTI Act

PM CARES Fund: Centre inflicts big blow on RTI Act
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PM CARES Fund: Centre inflicts big blow on RTI Act 

Highlights

Why are the RTI requests being rejected by the PM CARES? If government sincerely adheres to norms as prescribed by the RTI Act, there is absolutely no scope for rejecting information request

Why are the RTI requests being rejected by the PM CARES? If government sincerely adheres to norms as prescribed by the RTI Act, there is absolutely no scope for rejecting information request. The PMO is established to be a public authority and the information about PM CARES is either held by it or under its control. Even the trust of the PM CARES is in the control of PMO, for which, it must be shared, subject of course to exceptions under Section 8.

The Prime Minister's Office should not have deliberately ignored the will that the Parliament had expressed in the RTI Act, and the spirit of the Rules and Office Memoranda (OM) issued by the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) in responding to RTI requests

The Government of India again refused to make Prime Minister's Citizens Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations (PM CARES) fund, accountable It came up with a strange argument that though the CARES is public charitable trust, it is not a government organisation, and hence not liable to answer under Right to Information Act. This attitude is a big blow to the transparency law which is going to enter the 17th year on October 12, the so-called RTI Day.

An under-secretary of PMO in Government of India filed affidavit on behalf of PM CARES before Delhi High Court on September 23 and claimed that it is not created by or under the Indian Constitution or any other statute, and the amount received by it does not go in the Consolidated Fund of India.

A petitioner Samayak Gangwal, filed a writ petition challenging the PMO's order rejecting his RTI application stating that PM CARES was not a "public authority" within the meaning of Section 2(h) of the RTI Act.

Section 2(h) defines public authority: A Public authority means any authority/ body self-government constituted: (i) by or under the Constitution; (ii) by any other law made by the Parliament; (iii) by any other law made by State Legislature; (iv) by notification issued or order made by the appropriate Government, and includes any- (v) body owned, controlled or substantially financed; (vi) non-Government organization substantially financed, directly or indirectly by funds provided by the appropriate Government.

Whether PM-CARES did not care for RTI? We get this doubt because PMO refused to give information about the thousands of crores of rupees of public money given into the accounts of government-controlled PM CARES fund.

Section 4(1)(b) of RTI Act mandates suo motu disclosure of information on various points including: (iii) the procedure followed in the decision-making process, including channels of supervision and accountability… (viii) a statement of the boards, councils, committees and other bodies consisting of two or more persons constituted as its part or for the purpose of its advice, and as to whether meetings of those boards, councils, committees and other bodies are open to the public, or the minutes of such meetings are accessible for public…

(xiii) particulars of recipients of concessions, permits or authorisations granted by it. This mandates that the PMO to give all information such as what the process was and how the decision to call for the lockdown was made, without waiting for someone to file an RTI request. Regarding PM CARES, it should disclose the donors, beneficiaries, decisions made and how they were made.

Section 4(2) says: It shall be a constant endeavor of every public authority to take steps in accordance with the requirements of clause (b) of sub-section (1) to provide as much information suo motu to the public at regular intervals through various means of communications, including internet, so that the public have minimum resort to the use of this Act to obtain information.

Section 4(4) mandates that CPIO shall make such information: "…available free or at such cost of the medium or the print cost price as may be prescribed". Section 4(1)(c) says public authority shall: "…publish all relevant facts while formulating important policies or announcing the decisions which affect public." Section 4(1)(d) says public authority: "…shall provide reasons for its administrative or quasi-judicial decisions to affected persons."

If the PMO thinks it is an administrative decision, then also it must disclose complete details and reasons. Ultimately, how can the PMO breach Section 6(3), which says where requested information is held by or is closely connected with functions of another public authority, CPIO shall transfer to that public authority?

Section 19 of the Indian Trusts Act mandates the trustees to present full and accurate information of the amount and state of the trust property to the beneficiaries. If any law provided access to information of 'private' body (private trust, if PM CARES claims to be so) the last sentence of definition of information under Section 2(f) of RTI Act mandates it to be disclosed.

Is it a trust or public charitable trust? Whether character of Trust can be drawn from the statements of the Government of India or PMO who flatly deny any accountability? The PIO of PMO through his replies cannot determine the true nature of this CARES Fund. The Government has released the trust deed of the fund, in December 2020, which will serve as a guide to determine its true nature, which says that it is a public charitable trust. What is to be noted is that it does not exempt it from the purview of the RTI Act. The Bombay high court has already clarified the law on this stating that public charitable trust will be considered a public authority under the RTI Act if it satisfies the condition of sub-clauses (i) of Section 2(h)(d) i.e. if it is owned, controlled or substantially financed by the government.

Clause 8 of the trust deed defined the powers of the Board of Trustees ("Board"), and the board has complete control over management and administration of the trust. The designated trustees are cabinet ministers. They have been called trustees because of their ex-officio capacity as per clause 6 of the deed: (1) Prime Minister, who is also the chairman of the trust, (2) Minister of Defence, (3) Minister of Home Affairs and (4) Minister of Finance. Further, the chairperson has the power to nominate three other trustees from among the eminent persons in various fields like law, health, science, etc. Can we say that because PM and three Cabinet Ministers are having 'control' over the body? The Supreme Court answered this question.

In Pradeep Kumar Biswas v. Indian Institute of Chemical Biology, the apex Court clarified that if the government has a dominant role to play in terms of power to appoint the secretary, nominate and terminate members of the governing board, then it is said to have control over the body. Can anybody say that in the PM CARES Fund, the government officers holding positions of trustees are just ceremonial heads, and the entire management and administration of the fund are within their hands? No. That control decides that it is public authority. The Chairman ie., Prime Minister has complete power to modify the Constitution of the Trust Board. The office PMO with its secretariat helps the management. Joint Secretary of PMO is the secretary of the fund.

The Government is not merely wielding supervisory or regulatory control but has 'substantial' control over the fund, which is enough to make PM CARES Fund a public authority, according to Supreme Court in Thalappalam Service Coop. Bank Ltd. v. State of Kerala under section 2(h)(d)(i) of RTI Act.

The fund is not being used for personal purposes but for achieving the objectives of trust. The clause 4.2 of the trust deed explains primary objectives:

1. "To undertake and support relief or assistance of any kind relating to a public health emergency or any other kind of emergency, calamity or distress, either man-made or natural, including the creation or upgradation of healthcare or pharmaceutical facilities, other necessary infrastructure, funding relevant research or any other type of support.

2. To render financial assistance, provide grants of payments of money or take such other steps as may be deemed necessary by the Board of Trustees to assist the affected population.

3. To undertake any other activity, which is not inconsistent with the above Objects."

The Prime Minister's Office should not have deliberately ignored the will that the Parliament had expressed in the RTI Act, and the spirit of the Rules and Office Memoranda (OM) issued by the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) in responding to RTI requests.

(The author is Dean & Professor,

School of Law, Mahindra University,

Hyderabad, and former Central

Information Commissioner)

(The opinions expressed in this column are

those of the writer. The facts and opinions

expressed here do not reflect the views of

The Hans India)

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