New Delhi: There was high-voltage drama in the Lok Sabha Saturday as the opposition parties criticised the constitution of the PM-CARES fund for Covid-19, terming it a “black hole” and questioning the tax breaks and CSR tag given for donations to it.
The Modi government hit back by alleging that the Nehru-era Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund (PMNRF) — another fund to be tapped for emergencies — has been misused by the Congress’ Gandhi family.
The exchange came as the Lok Sabha debated the Taxation and Other Laws (Relaxation and Amendment of Certain Provisions) Bill 2020, which was eventually passed Saturday. The bill seeks to offer relief to taxpayers from various compliance requirements. It also provides a deduction for donations made to the PM-CARES Fund under section 80 (G), and an exemption to the fund’s income.
If passed, the legislation will cement changes effected by an ordinance issued this April.
The Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund or PM-CARES has been controversial since it was constituted in March to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic, with the opposition questioning why it was needed when India already had the PMNRF.
The fact that it has been made exempt from the purview of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India has raised a stink as well
The government has relaxed norms to enable companies to claim a 100 per cent tax deduction on contributions made to PM-CARES, on a par with the treatment to the PMNRF.
‘Why was PM-CARES needed?’
Opposition parties like the Congress, Trinamool Congress and CPI(M) led the criticism of the PM-CARES fund in Parliament Saturday. Mahua Moitra of the Trinamool Congress said PM-CARES corners “public funds to the detriment of state relief funds”, adding that 38 public sector undertakings (PSUs) have donated Rs 2,100 crore to the fund.
She likened PM-CARES to a “black hole”, and questioned why public sector undertakings are donating to PM-CARES.
PSUs contributing to PM-CARES is akin to “courtiers of the emperor giving gifts to the emperor out of public money”. Public sector undertakings are not allowed to donate to PMNRF.
Moitra also questioned why PM-CARES is accepting “tainted money from Chinese firms”, as well as the exemption of foreign contributions to the fund from FCRA regulations.
Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury of the Congress asked why a parallel fund was required when the PMNRF exists. “It appears to have been created to conceal the donations of private persons and corporates,” he added.
Many parties like the Shiv Sena and the YSR Congress reiterated their demands that the contributions to the state or CM’s relief fund also be considered corporate social responsibility (CSR) spending.
‘PMNRF misused under Congress rule’
Minister of State for Finance Anurag Thakur hit back at the opposition, saying funds under the PMNRF were misused by the Gandhi family. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman raised questions too, asking why the PMNRF had not been registered yet.
Speaking as part of the debate, Thakur said PM-CARES was constituted to meet the needs arising out of the pandemic, is registered as a trust with the Prime Minister, Defence Minister, Home Minister and Finance Minister as ex-officio members, and is audited by independent auditors — SARC and Associates — who also audit the PM National Relief Fund.
He added that no money from the Consolidated Fund of India goes into the PM-CARES.
The PMNRF, he said, was misused when the Congress government was in power, with funds donated to bodies like the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, a philanthropic organisation set up in honour of the former Prime Minister after his death in 1991.
He alleged a conflict of interest during the UPA years as Sonia Gandhi was both the chairperson of the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation and also a part of the PMNRF committee.
Set up by India’s first PM Jawaharlal Nehru in 1948, the PM-NRF is managed by a committee consisting of the Prime Minister, president of Indian National Congress, deputy prime minister, finance minister, a representative of the Tata Trust, and another representative of industry, to be chosen by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry.
Thakur went on to add that the Gandhi family, through the various charitable trusts associated with it, owns huge tracts of land valued in crores. The comments came a day after the opposition had forced him to apologise after he made similar allegations in the House.
Replying to the debate, Sitharaman pointed out that PMNRF is not a registered trust yet, despite having been formed decades ago. “Like charity, transparency should start from home,” she said.
She added that the PM-CARES Fund is registered as a public charitable trust but PMNRF is not.
“Only Congress president is a member of the PM-NRF. Why wasn’t there a Jana Sangh representative? How is transparency achieved by only the Congress party president as part of the PMNRF?” she said.
Since 1985, she added, there has been no meeting of PM-NRF.
She urged the Congress to reply to the questions raised by Thakur, saying they should only demand answers on PM-CARES afterwards.
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