The Delhi High Court on Tuesday took offense to the Centre’s filing of a one-page response on ‘such an important matter’ of the PM CARES Fund on which a motion was filed to declare it a ‘State’ in under the Constitution in order to ensure transparency in its operation.
Observing that the issue regarding the Prime Minister’s Citizens Emergency Relief and Assistance Fund (PM CARES Fund) is “not so straightforward”, the High Court asked the Center to file a “detailed response and exhaustive” on the matter.
“You’ve filed a response. A page response to such an important question? Nothing more? Such an important question and a one-page answer. There’s not even a whisper of what lead counsel ( petitioner) argues. You file an answer. The question is not that simple. We want a detailed answer,” said a bench consisting of Chief Justice Satish Chandra Sharma and Justice Subramonium Prasad.
The High Court was informed by counsel for the Center that a detailed response had already been filed in a similar petition by the same petitioner. Solicitor General (SG) Tushar Mehta, representing the Centre, said that all these points raised by the petitioner are relevant to be decided.
The Chief Justice replied, “has learned that SG has let a proper comprehensive response be filed because this case will definitely go to the Supreme Court and we have to decide and render judgment and deal with all the issues raised”.
The bench said: “That a detailed and comprehensive response be filed in four weeks. The rejoinder, if any, must be filed within two weeks. List September 16.
Petitioner Samyak Gangwal, represented by lead attorney Shyam Divan, in the petition filed in 2021, sought to declare the PM CARES Fund a ‘State’ under Section 12 of the Constitution and to order the fund to periodically disclose its audit reports on the PM CARES website.
The High Court had previously notified the Center of the application. Another motion filed by the same petitioner in 2020 seeking to declare PM CARES a ‘public authority’ under the Right to Information (RTI) Act is also pending in court which previously requested the response from the Center on this.
In the 2021 petition, he also asked for the instruction to disclose funds deposited quarterly, on the PM CARES website, and details of donations received by it, which must include the name of each donor.
An affidavit filed by an Under-Secretary to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) who serves the PM Cares Trust on an honorary basis in response to the 2021 petition said the trust operates with transparency and its funds are audited by an Auditor – a Chartered Accountant from the panel prepared by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India.
He maintained that regardless of the status of the PM CARES Fund under the Constitution and the RTI Act, it is not permitted to disclose third party information.
In support of his claim that the PM CARES Fund is a ‘State’, the petitioner said it was established by the Prime Minister on March 27, 2020 for a noble purpose, namely to provide assistance to Indian citizens in the aftermath of the public health emergency – the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The trustees of the fund are the Prime Minister, Minister of Defence, Minister of Interior and Minister of Finance, and immediately after the establishment of the fund, the Centre, through its senior officials, declared that the fund had been created and managed by the government.
“The depictions also included the use of government resources such as the use of the domain name ‘.HYPERLINK “http://gov.in”ngov.in’, the state emblem of India and the name ‘Prime Minister’ and its abbreviation on the PM Cares Fund website and in other official and unofficial communications.” In addition, the official address of the PM CARES Fund has been declared to be the South Block of the Office of the Prime Minister, New Delh,” he said.
Based on the representations, huge donations were received by the PM CARES Fund and according to the information provided on its website during the financial year 2019-2020, an amount of Rs 3076.62 crore was raised in only four days, he said.
“The petitioner does not attribute or even allege any wrongdoing on the part of the current ex-officio administrators of the PM CARES Fund. However, given that the Trustees of the PM CARES Fund are senior government officials, it is essential that the checks and balances contemplated in Part III of the Constitution be put in place on the operation of the fund to extinguish any possibility of allegations of ‘ quid pro quo’,” it said.
In his alternate prayers, Gangwal sought to direct the Center to make it known that the PM CARES Fund is not an Indian government fund and to stop PM CARES from using ‘Prime Minister of India’ or ‘ ‘Prime Minister’, including its abbreviations its name, on its website, trust deed and other official or unofficial communications and advertisements.
The Center said that all donations received by the trust are received via online payments, checks or demand drafts, and the amount received is verified with the audited report and expenditures of the trust fund posted on the website. .
The officer, who filed the affidavit, also stated that he carried out his duties with the PM CARES Trust on an honorary basis, which was a charitable trust not created by or under the Constitution or by an Act passed by Parliament or any State Legislature. .