New Delhi: The Supreme Court Wednesday sought the central government’s response to a petition asking for all contributions made to the PM CARES Fund to be directly transferred to the National Disaster Response Fund (NDRF).
The PM CARES Fund was launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 28 March in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, and by the end of May, the total donations received reportedly stood at Rs 10,000 crore.
A bench of justices Ashok Bhushan, S.K. Kaul and M.R. Shah gave the government four weeks to prepare its submissions. The court was hearing a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by the Centre for Public Interest and Litigation (CPIL) — an NGO that conducts litigation on matters of public interest.
The bench declined to issue immediate orders when senior advocate Dushyant Dave, appearing for the petitioner, urged the bench for directions. The court said: “It is difficult to pass an interim order at this stage.”
The plea also calls for setting up a national plan under the Disaster Management Act (DM Act).
CPIL has maintained in its petition that according to prominent Indian epidemiologists and experts in public health, the Indian government has not handled the Covid crisis well and in the light of the same, an expert body must be consulted by the central government to draft a National Plan.
Heated exchange between Dave and SG Mehta
The short hearing via video-conferencing also witnessed a heated exchange of arguments between Dave and Solicitor General Tushar Mehta.
Dave took objection to Mehta’s presence when the law officer repeatedly urged the bench not to issue a formal notice. “I am there. Let a petition be given to me, given me time and I will respond,” he told the bench.
After the court refused to give a short date, as asked by Dave, the senior counsel retorted: “I need to be heard. The court is dictating what the solicitor general is dictating.”
Mehta took an exception to Dave’s statement. “This is contemptuous. Someday some court has to take cognizance of this behaviour,” the solicitor remarked.
The judges, too, objected to Dave’s statement. “You cannot say this. We have issued notice in this matter. There are instances when we issue notice without hearing a party. That does not mean we did not apply our mind,” Justice Bhushan told Dave.
Despite the senior lawyer’s plea to hear the matter in two weeks, the court listed it for a hearing after four weeks.
‘Need a robust national plan of action’
CPIL has stated in its PIL that a minimum standard for relief should be provided for Covid-19 patients, in conformity with the Disaster Management Act (DM).
It said that in “the face of a health crisis” the NDRF has not been utilised by the authorities and a separate fund, the PM CARES Fund, has been set up outside the ambit of the DM Act, which is in direct violation of the statutory provisions under the Act.
CPIL complained against the “opaqueness” surrounding the PM CARES Fund, while pointing out that it is not subject to a mandatory CAG audit.
No information regarding its functioning or collection of funds can be sought as it also falls outside the purview of the Right to Information Act, the petitioner said.