transparency-during-a-crisis

Context: Right to Information (RTI) applications seeking information about the PM CARES Fund have been stonewalled. 

More on news:

  • The applications were dismissed by the Public Information officer of the PMO on the ground that PM CARES Fund is “not a public authority” under the ambit of the RTI Act, 2005.

Supporting Arguments for not disclosing information under RTI:

  • The relevant information in respect of PM CARES Fund may be seen on the website pmcares.gov.in.
  • PM CARES Fund is not a public authority under RTI.
  • Pandemic times call for swifter action and disclosure might create a hindrance to the same. 
    • In such a scenario the public scrutiny of government actions is undesirable during the crisis and citizens must unquestioningly trust the state. 

Arguments for Disclosing information under RTI:

  • As PM CARES includes the name, the composition of the trust, control, usage of the emblem, government domain name, it signifies that it is a public authority.
  • The composition of the trust is especially enough to show that the government exercises substantive control over the trust, making it a public authority.
    • PM is the ex-officio chairman of the Trust, while three cabinet ministers are ex-officio trustees in the PM CARES fund.
  • Further, no information exists on the official website of the Fund regarding the exact amount collected, names of donors, expenditure incurred, or details of beneficiaries. 

Consequences of Non Disclosure under RTI:

  • It violates Article 19 of the constitution which states access to information is a must for proper exercising of any right including free speech and expression.
  • It will generate an environment of Opacity and Secrecy under which arbitrariness and Corruption may thrive. 
    • If the poor and marginalized affected by the public health emergency are to have any hope of obtaining the benefits of government schemes, they must have access to relevant information. 
  • It will further undermine the accountability of officials spending money and will abrogate the doctrine of public trust.
    • As per the doctrine, the Government is a trustee of resources it uses as real ownership lies with people.
  • All the above factors will eventually erode the notion of participatory governance and people would be left with literally no checks over the functioning of the executive.

Significance of RTI:

  • Some reports suggest that donations of over $1 billion have been made, including contributions from foreign sources. 
  • The RTI Act, 2005, has empowered citizens to access information from public authorities and hold them accountable. 
    • During the COVID-19 crisis, proper implementation of the law has assumed greater significance than ever before. 
    • It is crucial that information related to the implementation of relief measures announced by governments be widely disseminated
  • Greater openness would prevent controversies of the kind exemplified by faulty testing kits and fake ventilators. 
  • Disclosure will prevent the patients from being shunted from one hospital to another if hospitals and health centers publicly provide real-time information about the availability of beds and other facilities. 
  • To ensure easy accessibility to those who need it the most, relevant information must be made available in local languages and widely disseminated. 
    • This is a statutory obligation of public authorities under Section 4 of the RTI Act.

People must be able to obtain information about how and where their money is being spent in the efforts to combat the pandemic and whether funds are reaching the intended beneficiaries.

It is behind the cloak of secrecy that the rights of individuals are most frequently abrogated, corruption thrives and public trust in institutions is eroded.

Public Authority under the Right to Information Act, 2005:

  • As per Section 2(h), a “public authority” is “any authority or body or institution of self-government established or constituted — 
    • by or under the Constitution;
    • by any other law made by Parliament;
    • by any other law made by State Legislature; 
    • by notification issued or order made by the appropriate Government 
  • It also includes 
    • any body owned, controlled or substantially financed;
    • non‑Government Organisation substantially financed, directly or indirectly by funds provided by the appropriate Government.

 

PM Care Fund:

  • It is a PM-Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund set up to support the government in its fight against the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
  • The fund consists entirely of voluntary contributions from individuals/organizations and does not get any budgetary support.
  • Nature of Donations: Individual donations are Tax exempted, company’s donations are eligible for Corporate Social responsibility and Foreign Donations are kept out of the purview of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 2010.
  • It has been set up as a public charitable trust.
    • Board of trustees: The Prime Minister chairs the fund in his official capacity, and can nominate three eminent persons in relevant fields to the Board of Trustees. 
    • The Ministers of Defence, Home Affairs and Finance are ex-officio Trustees of the Fund. 

Source:

https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/transparency-during-a-crisis/article31892527.ece

Image Source: National Herald