Why is Utilization of Relief Funds not Accountable/Transparent?
Whenever there is a disaster in the state or the country, funds are collected as relief from all corners. But a discomforting issue that remains is that the utilization of these funds is never made public. There might exist a process of accountability which the government might have put into place but the general public is unaware of the same and feels that the relief funds are not accountable.
As the number of Covid-19 patients and those affected by the lockdown continues to increase in Assam and India, state and central ministers are requesting for donations from the public. Many concerned citizens and corporate houses are donating liberally, but here again the public expects that the state and the central governments should make the utilisation of the relief funds public, if not monthly at least quarterly or yearly.
City-based activist and senior journalist Manjit Mahanta talking to G Plus said, “The government should make the utilisation of the relief funds public and as of now I have never seen any transparency.”
Similarly, a former Guwahati Municipal Corporation BJP councillor, talking to G Plus, expressed that it is the responsibility of the government to inform the public about all donations and where the money was used.
Along with Chief Minister’s Relief Fund and Prime Minister’s Relief Fund, in Assam there is Assam Arogya Nidhi and at the Centre there is Prime Minister's Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund (PM CARES Fund) to receive money for combating special disasters like Covid-19.
The Prime Minister's Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund (PM CARES Fund) was created on 28th March 2020 following the Covid-19 pandemic in India. The fund will be used for combating, containment and relief efforts against the coronavirus outbreak and similar pandemic-like situations in the future. The Prime Minister is the chairman of the trust. Other members include the defence, home and finance ministers.
Any contribution made to the PM CARES Fund before 30th June would qualify for a tax exemption under Income Tax Act, 1961. The Ministry of Corporate Affairs announced that contributions to the PM CARES fund would be counted as part of the company’s corporate social responsibility with additional CSR being offset in subsequent years.
The PM CARES fund is different from the Prime Minister's National Relief Fund (PMNRF), which was created in 1948 and has been used by the government of India ever since, for example, during the 2013 north India floods, the 2015 south India floods and the 2019 Kerala floods.
Now the question arises: Are not these CM relief funds and PM relief funds accountable?
An RTI was filed in the state’s chief minister’s office in 2018 seeking details of the funds received by the CM relief account since 2016 and the utilisation of the funds. The office, in its reply to the RTI, said that such information is not available with the chief minister’s office.
Former chief secretary of Assam, HN Das, talking to G Plus, said that such information should be made public and the chief minister’s office is expected to furnish the details whenever asked for.
Another retired bureaucrat who has worked in Assam government’s finance and information departments, talking to G Plus under condition of anonymity said, “The receiving of the funds in the CM and PM relief funds is subject to audit but what is not transparent is that to whom such funds will be given to.” He explained that the PM and CM relief funds are a pool of funds collected from various donations which can be audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India but it totally depends on the PM or the CM to utilise the funds as per their own will. They can help a cancer patient or a bomb blast victim or in any other ways for disaster reliefs but this process is not transparent, said the bureaucrat.
He further explained that this time the PM CARES Fund has been created only for the Covid- 19 pandemic and the funds are also subject to audit.
Talking about RTIs, the retired IAS officer said that CM and PM relief funds are under the purview of RTI and if details are not furnished the information seeker can approach the court.
The PM CARES Funds for Covid-19 is drawing criticism from the opposition and activists.
Following the creation of the fund opposition members raised queries as to why a separate fund was needed, when it was registered, under which act and why it did not contain any members of civil society or opposition as part of the trust.
“The PM’s National Relief Fund (PMNRF) has an unspent balance of Rs 3,800 crores (as of December 16, 2019). Why couldn’t Covid-19 donations go to PMNRF? Why was PM CARES created? Why are PM & 3 ministers members of this trust without any opposition or civil society leaders?” questioned Congress leader Shashi Tharror.
Many activists have tweeted against the PM CARES fund. A tweet of an activist, Saket Gokhale questioned, “Why did PM-CARES accept foreign donations for 2 days and then backtrack? Why was IT Act section 80(G) amended if donations to PM-CARES were already eligible for tax exemption? Why have Govt. PSUs been made to contribute to PM-CARES? PM-CARES is PURE organised theft.”
No doubt that the state and the central governments are being lauded for their initiatives to combat Covid-19, but if possible the government should make the spends from the relief funds public for better understanding of the citizens.