Exclusive: PM CARES fund to be audited by firm run by BJP sympathiser
Gupta has deep ties with the Bharatiya Janata Party.
The PM CARES fund has stirred another controversy as the Prime Minister’s office has given the mandate to a New Delhi based chartered accountancy firm to audit the fund. Earlier, it was stated that 'independent auditors' will be auditing the fund. But the job has now been assigned to SARC & Associates, a company founded and led by Sunil Kumar Gupta. Political activists have found that Gupta has deep ties with the Bharatiya Janata Party thus raising the question whether the firm is an 'independent' auditor. Not only is the firm auditing PM CARES, but it has also been auditing PM National Relief Fund since last year when BJP came to power for a second consecutive term.
When the nation found itself amidst an economic crisis incited by COVID-19, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a separate fund to facilitate donations for financial aid. Established on March 28th, the Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations, or simply known as PM CARES fund, has been controversial ever since. People questioned the need for a separate fund when the PM National Relief Fund (PMNRF) already existed and provided more transparency.
While the decision-makers for PMNRF include the President of India and members of the opposition party, those for PM CARES to include members from one political party only. Another difference between the two funds is that the PMNRF discloses its major foreign funding along with the total donations received and spent. Moreover, the PMNRF already had Rs.3,800.44 crore as of December 2019 which could have been used for COVID relief. Yet, the Prime Minister constituted a separate fund soliciting donations from across the globe and triggered uncertainty about it.
The PM CARES has collected at least $1.27 billion (Rs.9677.9 crores) as of 20th May 2020, according to an analysis by IndiaSpend. The Indian Railway donated Rs. 151 crores towards the fund, whereas the army, navy, and air force, employees of the defence ministry, and defence PSUs collectively donated Rs. 500 crores. Government employees were forced to donate a certain amount of their salary towards the fund, leaving most of them disappointed.
Sunil, one such government employee says, “We received circulars requesting us to donate one day’s salary each month to the fund. Those who didn’t want to donate were asked to write a letter to management communicating their objections. It was apparent that people who didn’t donate would face the consequences of some kind. We were subtly forced to contribute, but charities shouldn’t be forced.” At least Rs.438.8 crores have been deducted as one day’s salary of government employees towards PM CARES.
The optics repeatedly questioned the government about the expenditure of PM CARES fund for COVID relief, but received no clear answers. On May 13, the PMO had announced that Rs 3,100 crore, which comprises 32% of the total PM CARES funds, had been allocated for COVID-19 relief. This was the first and only announcement regarding the fund’s expenditure.
Credit: India Spend
“Choosing to donate was a moral decision we made to help the needy. It is our hard-earned money and we have every right to know where is it being spent”, says Anita Wadare, an IT employee. Citing the lack of transparency, a law student from Bengaluru, Sri Harsha Kandukuri filed an RTI application on April 1st. He asked the PMO for the fund’s trust deed, government orders, notifications and circulars related to its creation and operation. The PMO rejected this application and refused to provide any details about the fund stating that the fund is not a public authority under the Act. The official response said:
PM CARES fund is not a public authority under the ambit Section 2(h) of the RTI Act, 2005. However, relevant information in respect of PM CARES Fund may be seen on the website – pmcares.gov.in
Sources at the CAG office too said that since the fund was based on donations of individuals and organizations, the CAG had no right to audit the charitable organization unless the trustees allowed them to. The PM CARES website states that the Minister of Defence, Minister of Home Affairs, and Minister of Finance are the ex-officio trustees of the fund with the Prime Minister being the ex-officio chairman.
According to Kandukuri, the fund’s name, the composition of the trust, the government domain name, and the usage of the emblem indicate that the fund is a public authority. Political activist Krishnakant Varma says, “The money for PM CARES was collected from the people, for the people. This should primarily make the fund a public authority enabling the PMO to share its details with us. The response, along with the fact that this fund is not being audited by CAG, highlights the lack of transparency between the government and the optics.”
The RTI response triggered a massive outrage across the nation as people questioned about the details of PM CARES. A couple of days later, the government gave the mandate to SARC & Associates, which generated curiosity about the firm. According to the firm’s website, it has 18 partners with more than 300 professionals. The firm has branches across the country – Mumbai, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Surat, Chandigarh, Noida and New Delhi. The leader and founder of the firm, Sunil Kumar Gupta, identifies himself as an ‘entrepreneur par excellence, a philanthropist and a great visionary’. Besides being the founder of India Global Chamber of Businesses, Gupta is also the leader of the Indo-European Business Forum (IEBF).
Despite his achievements, political activists have raised concerns at Gupta’s deep ties with the BJP. Gupta has regularly used his social media accounts to voice his support for the current government. He even attended the World Hindu Congress in 2018, indicating his relations with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. In the last five years, Gupta has regularly met prominent BJP leaders like Narendra Modi, former Delhi BJP President Manoj Tiwari, Union Minister Piyush Goyal, Jabalpur MP Rakesh Singh, Anurag Thakur, MP Rajiv Pratap Rudy and Union Minister Kiren Rijiju amongst others.
Speaking about Gupta’s ties with the BJP, Congress activist Saket Gokhale stated in his Facebook post, “After siphoning off over 10,000 crores of money, the "fund" will be audited by a BJP/RSS man who is not only close to the BJP but also has access to Modi. This is open public loot by the BJP while taking advantage of a pandemic. We must speak up and not let them get away with this”.
While SARC & Associates also audits the PMNRF, the firm was appointed as the auditor only last year. Before that, the fund was being audited by Thakur, Vaidyanath & Co. for more than ten years. There’s no clarity on why the firm was replaced, however political activists suggest that the replacement had something to do with BJP winning the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
Reports show that in April, the government took over Rs.7,800 crore from the ‘Members of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme’ to manage the adverse impact of COVID-19 in the country. Additional Rs.55 crores were collected by reducing the salaries and allowances of parliamentarians by 30% for one year. Several NGOs and government organizations have additionally donated PPE kits, masks, ventilators sanitizers, dry ration, and equipment to aid the COVID relief work. Companies like Reliance industries, and Larsen and Toubro donated Rs.500 crore and Rs. 150 crores respectively, while their employees protested for salary cuts and non-payment of wages.
Sudeepansh Rai, a Mumbai based lawyer says, “The amount of money PM CARES has collected can buy testing kits for almost 20 million people since only 2.4 million test samples have been collected so far. The entire amount can be used to buy masks for every citizen besides purchasing tickets for all migrant workers stranded in different states.”
Currently, the PMO has objected to the hearing of a plea in Delhi High Court which seeks to declare the PM CARES fund as a public authority under the RTI Act. The hearing was conducted over a video conferencing call by Justice Navin Chawla. Solicitor general Tushar Chawla, who represents PMO, has informed the court that he will be explaining the reasons for not entertaining this petition any further. The next hearing of the plea is listed on August 28th.