Modi refuses to reveal $1bn coronavirus fund’s donors

Indian government claims ‘PM CARES’ is exempt from right-to-information laws

Sheikh Saaliq
Wednesday 15 July 2020 15:36 BST
Some activists see the fund as a 'marketing device' for the prime minister.
Some activists see the fund as a 'marketing device' for the prime minister.

Bejon Misra responded quickly to Indian prime minister Narendra Modi's appeal in March for donations to a new fund to strengthen the country's fight against coronavirus.

The next day, the 69-year-old retired management professor made a donation. “It was a generous contribution because Modi is the face of it,” Mr Misra said.

Such trust in Mr Modi is common in India, with the prime minister enjoying an 82-per-cent public approval rating, according to US-based pollster Morning Consult.

So when the Prime Minister's Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund, or PM CARES, was launched days after India started a countrywide virus lockdown, donations began pouring in and have not stopped.

Retirees like Mr Misra, industrialists, Bollywood stars and foreign companies have all pitched in. But the fund, now valued at more than $1bn (£790m), has run into controversy over issues of transparency and accountability.

The Associated Press requested a list of donors and payments from Mr Modi's office under the Right to Information Law, which gives citizens access to information from India's often opaque bureaucracy. The request was denied.

Mr Modi's office, which manages PM CARES, has refused to disclose the information, arguing that even though it is administered by the Indian government, it is not a public authority, and therefore not subject to right-to-information laws. As a result, there is little transparency about the money the fund is receiving and spending in the middle of India's still-raging virus outbreak.

“It's not a state secret and the government must answer the questions that are being raised,” said Saket Gokhale, an independent activist who was one of the first to question the fund. “They are stonewalling.”

Legal experts are challenging the response of Mr Modi's office.

Surender Singh Hooda, a lawyer at India's top court, filed a petition on 5 June arguing that the fund's website must display details of the money received and the way it is used. The Delhi high court told Mr Hooda to withdraw his petition and contact Mr Modi's office first, as is required by law.

Mr Modi's office denied Mr Hooda's request for information.

“The money has been collected under the name of the prime minister and millions of ordinary citizens have donated to it. The least we expect is some transparency,” Mr Hooda said.

Mr Modi is the fund's chairman, and the powerful home minister, Amit Shah, and the ministers of defence and finance sit on its board. But unlike other government-administered funds, it is not audited by India's comptroller and auditor general. Instead, Mr Modi appointed a private business consulting firm, SARC & Associates, to audit the fund 12 days after it donated $212,665 (£167,000) to it.

Sunil Kumar Gupta, the head of SARC & Associates, has been a vocal supporter of Mr Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party, appearing in photographs with Mr Modi and top party leaders at various events.

Mr Gupta also wrote a book in 2018 called “Make in India”, about Mr Modi's project to increase manufacturing and domestic consumption of Indian-made products.

“On what merit was this private company, which is so close to Modi's party, given the job to audit the fund?” asked Mr Gokhale.

Mr Gupta declined requests for comment.

Mr Modi's party colleagues have repeatedly denied any wrongdoing by the fund. Party spokesperson Nalin Kohli said it was “transparent” and was helping India fight the virus.

PM CARES has also run into other controversies. After Mr Modi's office said it had spent $26m (£20.6m) from the fund to buy 50,000 ventilators, two top hospitals in Mumbai and New Delhi described shortcomings in the products and concluded they were prone to failure.

The company that made the ventilators rejected the findings.

The main opposition congress party called the purchase of the ventilators a scam.

About $13m (£10.3m) from the fund was allocated for impoverished migrant workers, millions of whom were stranded without work or transportation home during the two-month countrywide lockdown. Many say the allocation came too late.

Mr Modi's party said the $13m was given to state governments to provide food, shelter, medical treatment and transportation to the migrants.

Former finance minister Palaniappan Chidambaram, a Congress party member, was critical that the money did not directly “go to the hands of the migrant workers".

Others see the fund as a thinly veiled marketing device for the prime minister.

“It looks like Modi wants to put a stamp of his own on everything,” said Aseem Katyal, an independent activist who has been demanding transparency from Mr Modi's office.

But for Mr Misra and many like him, these allegations don ot matter – a reminder that Mr Modi's popularity hadn't declined despite rising criticism of his government's handling of the virus due to a surge in infections and an ailing economy. “I trust Modi,” said Mr Misra. “He will do no wrong.”

Associated Press

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in