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?
On March 24, Modi appeared on television and announced a 21-day lockdown with four hours’ notice. Millions of migrant labourers were stranded in cities with no savings to survive. The people waited for PM Modi to use the PM CARES funds to help these migrants. No such announcement came. An estimated 12.2 crore have lost their jobs since the lockdown was announced. No funds from PM CARES were allocated to create jobs for them.
A recent analysis by IndiaSpend estimated that at least Rs 9,677.90 crore has been collected in the PM CARES fund so far. Of this, Rs 4,308 crore has been donated by government agencies and staff. Yet, the only announcement to be made till date about the usage of the funds is the allocation of Rs 3,100 crore for COVID-19 work, made on May 13 — Rs 2,000 crore of which is mired in controversy. The reason: The central government is procuring 5,000 ventilators from a Rajkot-based firm which has supplied ventilators to Ahmedabad’s largest COVID-19 hospital. These machines have proved inadequate, and have forced Ahmedabad Civil Hospital to put out an SOS for “actual ventilators”. The PM CARES fund has announced that it would be spending Rs 2,000 crore for the purchase of 50,000 “Made in India” ventilators. It is to be hoped that they do not prove to be substandard.
PM CARES comes with a litany of problems. The decision-makers at its helm belong to one political party. Besides, there is total lack of transparency about the use of the funds. The allegations of cronyism and favouritism with regard to spending are particularly of concern. The most worrying part, however, is the fund has clearly not benefited the people who needed help. The fund may be called PM CARES, but does the PM really care?
This article appeared in the print edition of June 10, 2020, under the name ‘If PM Cares’. The writer is national media panelist, Indian National Congress