Modi Advisor’s Letter Undermines PMO Claim That PM CARES Isn’t Covered By RTI

Khulbe’s letter reveals how the Prime Minister’s Office has controlled and promoted this opaque fund by keeping it legally at par with, if not above, other central government funds to enable it to receive more money from big business.

Modi Advisor's Letter Undermines PMO Claim That PM CARES Isn't Covered By RTI - SurgeZirc India
Modi Advisor's Letter Undermines PMO Claim That PM CARES Isn't Covered By RTI / Photo credit: Screenshot

A letter written by one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s senior-most advisors undermines the claim made by the Prime Minister’s Office that the PM CARES fund is not a public authority under the Right To Information Act, SurgeZirc India learned.

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The May 12 letter written by Bhaskar Khulbe, one of PM Modi’s three advisors in the Prime Minister’s Office, requested the Ministry of Corporate Affairs to share a copy of its notification altering the Companies Act 2013 to include PM CARES in schedule VII of the act, thereby allowing corporations to make tax-free donations of their budgets set aside for corporate social responsibility obligations directly to PM CARES.

Section 2(h) of the RTI Act defines what a ‘public authority’ is. This definition appears to include charitable trusts like the PM CARES as it is a fund controlled by the central government. Indeed, the Delhi High Court is presently considering a petition which makes this argument. The Prime Minister’s Office recently told the court that it disagrees with the argument.

It is unclear why Khulbe asked for a copy of the notification – as no such notification existed at the time. Nonetheless, officials at the Ministry of Corporate Affairs treated Khulbe’s request as urgent, and prepared the notification he asked for despite ambivalence among them over the need to do so.

Because corporations could already donate their CSR funds to PM CARES thanks to a clarification issued by the corporate affairs ministry some weeks before (more on that later in this piece).

Khulbe’s letter reveals how the Prime Minister’s Office has controlled and promoted this opaque fund by keeping it legally at par with, if not above, other central government funds to enable it to receive more money from big business. Unlike PM CARES, other central government funds are covered by the RTI Act.

But PM CARES has been shrouded in secrecy and ambiguity since its inception, with the Prime Minister’s Office insisting in RTI responses that the fund is not a public authority under the transparency law despite the Prime Minister and senior ministers having been named trustees of the fund and the government exercising a significant degree of control on it by decisions such as this amendment aimed at attracting CSR funds.

In fact, the fund is administered by officials working in the PMO and its ‘head office’ is also located in the Prime Minister’s office itself.

The revelation that it was a letter by Khulbe – an advisor close to Prime Minister Modi – that prompted the Ministry of Corporate Affairs to alter the Companies Act to favour the PM CARES fund, also answers a question asked by senior opposition leaders recently including by former finance minister P. Chidambaram.

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“Who authorised MCA to make a retrospective amendment to the Schedule to the Companies Act inserting the name of PM-CARES Fund in the Schedule?” Chidambaram  asked on August 20, adding that, “The retrospective amendment in favour of a privately established fund is obviously an act of favouritism and discriminatory. It will be challenged.”

Modi Advisor's Letter Undermines PMO Claim That PM CARES Isn't Covered By RTI - SurgeZirc India
Letter written by Bhaskar Khulbe, Advisor to PM, to Corporate Affairs secretary on 12 May 2020. Accessed under the RTI Act, 2005 / Photo credit: HuffPost India

Khulbe’s letter is part of correspondence obtained by this reporter under the Right to Information Act.

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