Bejon Misra responded quickly to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s appeal in March for donations to a new fund to strengthen the country’s fight against the coronavirus.
The next day, the 69-year-old retired management professor made a donation. “It was a generous contribution because Modi is the face of it,” Misra said.
Such trust in Modi is common in India, the prime minister enjoying a very high approval rating, despite coronavirus infections spiking in recent weeks.
India on Tuesday recorded more than 28,000 cases for the second consecutive day, taking the tally to 906,752, according to the country’s health ministry. More than 23,000 people have died from COVID-19.
So when the Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund, or PM CARES, was launched days after India started a countrywide virus lockdown in March, donations began pouring in and have not stopped.
Retirees like Misra, industrialists, Bollywood stars and foreign companies have all pitched in. But the fund, now valued at more than $1bn, has run into controversy over issues of transparency and accountability.
PM office denies fund information
The Associated Press requested a list of donors and payments from Modi’s office under the Right to Information Law, which entitles citizens to access information from India’s often opaque bureaucracy. The request was denied.
Modi’s office, which manages PM CARES, has refused to disclose the information, arguing that even though it is administered by the Indian government, the fund is not a public authority and therefore is not subject to right-to-information laws.
As a result, there is little transparency about the money the fund is receiving and spending in the middle of India’s still-raging virus outbreak.
“It’s not a state secret, and the government must answer the questions that are being raised,” said Saket Gokhale, an independent activist who was one of the first to question the fund. “They are stonewalling.”
Legal experts are challenging the response by Modi’s office.
Surender Singh Hooda, a lawyer at India’s top court, filed a petition on June 5, arguing that the fund’s website must display details of the money received and how it is used.
The Delhi high court told Hooda to withdraw his petition and contact Modi’s office first, as required by law.
Modi’s office denied Hooda’s request for information.
“The money has been collected under the name of the prime minister, and millions of ordinary citizens have donated to it. The least we expect is some transparency,” Hooda said.
Modi is the fund’s chairman, while the powerful Home Minister Amit Shah, as well as the ministers of defence and finance sit on its board.
The ventilators ‘scam’
But unlike other government-administered funds, this is not audited by India’s Comptroller and Auditor General.
Instead, Modi appointed a private business consulting firm, SARC & Associates, to audit the fund 12 days after it donated $212,665 to it.
Sunil Kumar Gupta, head of SARC & Associates, has been a vocal supporter of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, appearing in photographs with Modi and top party leaders at various events.
Gupta also wrote a book in 2018 about “Make in India”, Modi’s project to increase manufacturing and domestic consumption of Indian-made products.
“On what merit was this private company, which is so close to Modi’s party, given the job to audit the fund?” asked Gokhale. “It’s shady, and the activities are very suspect.”
Gupta declined requests for comment.
Modi’s party colleagues have repeatedly denied any wrongdoing by the fund. Party spokesperson Nalin Kohli said it was “transparent” and was helping India fight the virus.
PM CARES has also run into other controversies.
After Modi’s office said it had spent $26m from the fund to buy 50,000 ventilators, two top hospitals in Mumbai and New Delhi described shortcomings in the products and concluded they were prone to failure.
The company that made the ventilators rejected the findings.
The main opposition Congress party called the ventilator purchase a scam.
About $13m from the fund was allocated for impoverished migrant workers, millions of whom were stranded without work or transportation home during the two-month countrywide lockdown. Many say the allocation came too late.
Modi’s party said the $13m was given to state governments to provide food, shelter, medical treatment and transportation for the migrants.
Former Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram, a Congress party member, was critical that the money did not directly “go to the hands of the migrant workers”.
Others see the fund as a thinly veiled marketing device for the prime minister.
“It looks like Modi wants to put a stamp of his own on everything,” said Aseem Katyal, an independent activist who has been demanding transparency from Modi’s office.