The Prime Minister's Office (PMO) Wednesday raised objection in the Delhi High Court over maintainability of a plea seeking to declare PM CARES Fund as a 'public authority' under the Right to Information (RTI) Act. Justice Navin Chawla, who conducted the hearing through video conferencing, was told by Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, who represented PMO, that he will file a response explaining why this petition should not be entertained.
The high court listed the matter for further hearing on August 28. The high court was hearing a plea by Samyak Gangwal challenging a June 2 order of the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO), PMO, refusing to provide documents sought by him on the ground that PM Cares Fund is not a public authority under the RTI Act.
The plea sought direction to set aside the CPIO's order and to provide the documents as sought by him in the RTI application. The petition, filed through advocates Debopriyo Moulik and Ayush Shrivastava, said as a measure to combat COVID 19 pandemic, the PMO on March 28, through a press note announced the creation of a public charitable trust by the name of Prime Minister's Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund (PM CARES Fund).
In the press release, the PMO appealed to the citizens of the country to generously donate to the PM CARES Fund in light of severe health and economic ramifications of the COVID 19 pandemic, it said, adding that the donations in the fund would qualify as CSR and exemption from tax. On May 1, the petitioner filed an RTI application seeking a copy of trust deed of PM CARES Fund, document or letter vide which the fund was constituted and copy of the entire file including note sheets, letters, communications office memos or orders wherein the decision to constitute the fund was taken.
However, on June 2, the CPIO of PMO refused the information on the ground that PM CARES is not a public authority under the ambit of RTI Act, the plea said while challenging this decision. It said the PM CARES is a body owned or controlled by the appropriate government as its trustees include the Prime Minister, ministers of Defence, Home Affairs and Finance.
Meanwhile, another petition on PM CARES FUND, which came up for hearing before a bench of Chief Justice D N Patel and Justice Prateek Jalan was declared dismissed as withdrawn as the petitioner approached the high court without preferring an RTI application in this regard. Advocate Surender Singh Hooda, who filed the petition, had also sought direction to the PM CARES Fund to divulge information under the RTI Act as it is a public authority and asked for details of money received and utilised.
The petition had said that after two months of its creation, the total corpus of the fund stands at approximately Rs 10,000 crores and the amount has been so collected upon strength of prestige lent by the office of the Prime Minister. The plea, filed through advocate Aditya Hooda, referred to reports published in newspapers on May 31 that the PM CARES fund has refused to divulge information sought by one Harsha Kundakarni under the RTI Act, 2005 by claiming that the fund is not a 'public authority' within the ambit of Act.
"Therefore, the petitioner's or anybody else's application would also meet the same fate and hence the exercise of exhausting the remedy by filing another application and then filing appeal before the statutory authority may be dispensed with in the interest of justice," it said.