New Delhi: The Supreme Court Tuesday declined to order transfer of funds received by the PM CARES Fund to the National Disaster Response Fund (NDRF) to help in the fight against Covid-19.
A three-judge bench led by Justice Ashok Bhushan held that the Centre can formulate a separate fund despite the fact that the NDRF is already in place.
“..it is for the central government to take the decision as from which fund what financial measures are to be taken and it is neither for PIL petitioner to claim that any financial assistance be made from particular fund nor this court to sit in judgment over the financial decisions of the Central Government,” held the bench.
The ruling came on a petition filed by the Centre for Public Interest Litigation (CPIL). Senior advocate Dushyant Dave and advocate Prashant Bhushan argued the matter for the petitioner.
The two argued that PM CARES is not subject to an audit by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG). It is not under “public scrutiny” and contributions to it are “100% tax free”.
The CPIL had also sought a direction to prepare a “well-thought out national plan to deal with the pandemic”. According to them, the existing plan, notified in 2019 under the NDRF, is neither comprehensive nor covers the pandemic.
The government, however, maintained that PM CARES was created for voluntary donations and was separate from the NDRF, which comes under the Disaster Management Act of 2005. The court held that the plan prepared by the government under the NDRF was sufficient to tackle the ensuing Covid-19 pandemic and there was no need for a fresh action plan.
The PM CARES fund was set up by the central government as a public charitable trust on 28 March to deal with any situation of emergency or distress, such as the novel coronavirus pandemic.
‘Not open for petitioner to question wisdom of trustees’
Reading out the verdict, the court said it had framed five questions on the issues raised before it and has answered them accordingly.
The court rejected CPIL’s contention that the rules under NDRF were amended to benefit the PM CARES Fund. It also termed CPIL’s argument that new stipulations made it impossible for a person or institution to contribute to the relief fund as misconceived and incorrect.
The new guidelines had come into effect in 2015-16 while the Covid-19 pandemic is in 2020, the court noted.
Funds received by the NDRF can be utilised for Covid relief, the court said. It also held that any contribution/grant can be credited to the NDRF and it was open for anyone to contribute to the NDRF voluntarily.
The court opined there was no statutory prohibition on making any contribution by any person or institution to the NDRF.
“The financial planning is in the domain of the central government, which…is made after due deliberation and consideration. We, thus, do not find any substance in the submission of the petitioner that there is any statutory restriction/prohibition in utilisation of NDRF for Covid-19,” the court added.
In the context of PM CARES Fund, the court said, contributions made by individuals and institutions are to be released for public purpose to fulfill the objective of the trust.
“The trust does not receive any budgetary support or any government money. It is not open for the petitioner to question the wisdom of trustees to create PM CARES fund which was constituted with an objective to extend assistance in the wake of public health emergency that is pandemic Covid-19,” said the court, and asked the petitioner not to take exception to the constitution of a public charitable trust at this need of hour.
‘National plan sufficient to deal with Covid-19 pandemic’
The court also held that the plan prepared by the government for the NDRF was sufficient to tackle the ensuing Covid-19 pandemic and there was no need for a fresh action plan.
“The petitioners are not right in their submissions that there is no sufficient plan to deal with Covid-19 pandemic. Covid-19 being a biological and public health emergency, which has been specifically covered by the National Plan, 2019, which is supplemented by various plans, guidelines and measures, there is no lack or dearth of plans and procedures to deal with Covid-19,” the court said.
The plan specifically contemplates a pandemic situation, including the novel coronavirus, the court noted. The petitioner’s argument, therefore, that the government should have devised fresh guidelines under NDRF for Covid-19 was also not accepted by the bench.
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