CIC asks for info on PM's Relief Fund
Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) Wajahat Habibullah on Wednesday held that though the Prime Minister's National Relief Fund (PMNRF) could not be categorised as an independent public authority, its information is held by the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) as a public authority and as such the latter was obliged to make the information accessible to a citizen under the RTI Act.
Complainant Mohammed Muzibur Rehman in August 2006 had sought information regarding amounts deducted from salaries of employees of the South Eastern Coalfield Ltd. for donation to the PMNRF and whether the same could be utilised elsewhere. He had expressed doubts as to whether the donations had actually been deposited in the PM's Relief Fund, expressing apprehensions of embezzlement.
The PMO, in its reply in November 2006, said the PMNRF was not a "public authority" and, as such, there was no statutory obligation to provide information under the RTI Act and that the PMO was not aware of the break-up and methodology of the collections.
Dissatisfied with the reply the complainant moved a second appeal before the CIC. In response to a notice issued by the commission, the PMO replied that when the application was received, it was of the view that the PMNRF was not covered under the purview of the RTI Act and accordingly not bound to provide relevant information.
Subsequent to the reply given to Rehman, it was observed by the CIC that the PMNRF was covered under the purview of the RTI Act and replies were given accordingly.
As regards the information about the contributions towards the PMNRF, the PMO said contributions from the PSUs/companies towards the PMNRF were either received directly from them or through the ministry/department concerned. The PMNRF is involved only from the point of receipt of contributions, and it is up to the donor organisation to ensure that collections are forwarded to the PMNRF.
The Director, PMO, also pointed out that this was the first time that it was being brought to his notice that there were contributions purportedly made in addition to those that have been acknowledged in responses sent to the application for information.
The CIC after hearing the parties ordered that Director, PMO, who is directly concerned with administering the PMNRF will enquire within 15 days into the suspicions now raised by the complainant.
Source: The Indian Express == CIC asks for info on PM's Relief Fund - Yahoo! India News
Re: CIC asks for info on PM's Relief Fund
Relief funds: Safeguards must against misuse
B. S. Raghavan
In the wake of calamities, any number of public-spirited institutions, voluntary organisations and citizens' groups spring into action to collect money and relief items. There is an obvious need for measures to guard against the misuse and abuse of the generous and to plug systemic loopholes and enforce stringent supervision. It is also essential to be vigilant against the funds started under private auspices disappearing without a trace, says B. S. Raghavan.
Amidst the cries of help for tsunami victims, one must guard against the misuse of funds collected. — Shaju John
DIFFERENT funds and trusts, either pre-existing or set up specifically for relief and rehabilitation of victims of particular calamities, are flooded with the generous contributions of institutions and individuals in India and abroad deeply moved by the suffering and distress caused on such occasions. For instance, the super-cyclone that devastated some districts of Orissa in 1999 brought in Rs 100 crore to the Prime Minister's National Relief Fund.
The amount pouring into it after the cataclysmic earthquake of January 26, 2001, in Gujarat, at the rate of about 5,000 cheques a day, exceeded Rs 450 crore, while the cathartic impact of Kargil on the psyche of the people and their gratitude for the sacrifices of the jawans swelled the Fund by more than Rs 500 crore, the highest amount ever since Jawaharlal Nehru established it at the time of Independence for supplementing the Government's resources in the tragic aftermath of Partition.
The Prime Minister's Office (PMO) has instances of householders being so touched as to will away their entire movable and immovable assets for the Fund. During the Kargil war, an 84-year-old man reportedly gifted his deceased wife's jewellery, all his property and wealth to the PM's fund.
The beauty of such munificence is that it is not confined to the wealthy and the well-to-do: Children send their pocket money and piggy banks, housewives give away their savings and personal belongings and the poor too pitch in with their mite. At the time of the Gujarat quake, an aged lower-middle-class ex-employee walked all the way to the PMO to hand over his pension and refused to let his name be shown in the list of donors.
No doubt, in the case of the PM's National Relief Fund (PMNRF), the Web site Prime Minister's Office makes available some information on the money collected at different times and the use to which it has been put, but it is not in the form of an item-wise tabulation or balance-sheet making it easy to keep tabs on the net accruals and purpose-wise, location-wise allocations and the actual utilisation.
Further, being entirely within the discretion of the Prime Minister, the PMNRF is not subject to scrutiny by any Parliamentary Committee or annual audit by the Comptroller and Auditor-General.
A cell comprising a few officials in the PMO designated by the Prime Minister is in charge of processing the requests received, channelling the grants to deserving causes, and keeping accounts of receipts and disbursements. These cover not only State governments and NGOs, but also persons in need of help for medical treatment, operation and the like whose cost they cannot afford.
The cell is also expected to ensure, by obtaining proper utilisation certificates, that the amounts made over to the State governments, NGOs and individuals are duly spent in time and for the purpose for which they were intended. Since there is no audit by a Constitutional authority, neither Parliament nor the public has a way of knowing how efficiently and prudently the PMNRF is managed.
Chief Ministers of States have at their disposal similar relief funds, used for much the same humanitarian purposes, although the procedures for issuing sanctions are not uniform. In some States, requests and proposals are referred to the departments concerned for examination and making recommendations, while in some others, decisions on the sanction of grants are left wholly to the discretion of the Chief Ministers.
If the information provided by the PMO and its Web site on the PMNRF are in broad terms, the information on the Chief Ministers' Relief Funds is even scantier with no readily accessible consolidated year-wise picture of the total and sources of amounts received, the nature and quantum of amounts sanctioned with particulars of recipients, and confirmation of its utilisation in the manner prescribed.
This kind of anomalous situation has led (as in the case of Andhra Pradesh and Punjab sometime ago) to allegations of such funds being used for favouring political and personal cronies, diversion to political party coffers or other illicit purposes.
It also became a cause of action in Gujarat. When pronouncing judgment in a public interest litigation asking the State government to account for the moneys received from donors and contributors who have extended help in cash and kind to the victims of the earthquake, the High Court declared it to be the "enforceable right" of the people "to seek directions to the Government to ensure that the relief and rehabilitation material meant for quake victims reaches them in time and their hour of need" and "to demand account of receipt and expenditure of such relief and rehabilitation material in cash and kind."
To this effect, it even laid down that district judges will "act as ombudsmen for relief and rehabilitation operation conducted by Governmental and non-governmental organisations in their respective districts and supervise them." It further ordered the opening of a separate fund, especially for disaster management, with the money that has come through donations and contribution from private and governmental bodies and individuals, and subjecting the accounts of all receipts and expenditure to a review by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India and keeping them open for inspection by the public as well. In the wake of calamities, any number of public-spirited institutions, voluntary organisations and citizens' groups spring into action to collect money and relief items. As a former Chief Commissioner of Income-Tax put it, "Scores of individuals, television channels, newspapers, NGOs and unknown organisations" collect money, since anybody can create a fund or a trust.
"All of them may have glorious intentions, but it is difficult for any donor to figure out who the good ones are, (and) who are sincere. Even if a minor abuse takes place, the whole spirit will be lost... When such a calamity strikes and thousands of trusts and individuals handle relief money, it becomes impossible to check every detail. There are enough cases of abuse in the income tax records."
There is, thus, an obvious need for preventive measures to guard against the misuse and abuse of the kind-heartedness and generosity of society and to plug systemic loopholes and enforce stringent supervision. It is also essential to be vigilant against some of the funds started under private auspices disappearing without trace. Here is an illustrative list of possible safeguards which can always be further buttressed and improved upon:
As regards the Prime Minister's and Chief Ministers' Relief Funds —
the respective Governments should adopt transparent criteria for approving sanction of grants, preferably after circulating them for the opinion of the legislatures and public;
a small group of eminent persons at the Central and State levels should be constituted to watch over the observance of the criteria and the justifiability of the grants sanctioned;
information on each and every allocation made from the fund(s) from time to time should be laid before the legislatures and intimated to the public through the media;
the receipts, disbursements, the nature and extent of utilisation should be audited at the close of every financial year by the Comptroller and Auditor General and his report should be scrutinised by the Public Accounts Committee and discussed in the legislatures;
contributions received in the context of a specific calamity should be put in a Fund specially constituted for that calamity and administered as a distinct entity, instead of being mixed up with the general Relief Fund.
As regards Funds announced by private groups and organisations —
the fact of launching of the Fund with particulars of its sponsors should be intimated to the Home/Finance Ministries/Departments to facilitate maintenance of a list of the Funds and deal with any future disputes and complaints;
they should be required to issue, and make available on request, weekly media bulletins on the cumulative totals of amounts received and disbursed, with full information on the purposes, organisations and locations covered by them;
duly audited accounts of receipts and expenditure, with an accompanying report on the highlights, should be published at the close of each financial year until the Fund is fully utilised.
While calamities evoke the best in human beings in terms of philanthropy, solidarity, fellow-feeling and compassion, they also are apt to be exploited by the unscrupulous and the dishonest. Even assuming that the sponsors are well-intentioned, there is a possibility of their being inexperienced in effectively and purposefully operating the Fund launched by them. A scheme of safeguards will serve their interest as well.
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