Automatic Deposit Of Uncashed Electoral Bonds Contrary To PMNRF's Claim Of Accepting Only ‘Voluntary Donations’: Plea In Delhi High Court
In a pending case related to the status of Prime Minister National Relief Fund (PMNRF) under the RTI Act, an application has been moved in Delhi High Court stating that automatic deposit of amounts of electoral bonds, which are not encashed within the statutory period of 15 days, in the fund cannot be termed as “voluntary donations" and thus, the Trust cannot claim it only accepts “voluntary funds.”
Lokesh K. Batra, a retired navy officer, has filed an application seeking intervention in an appeal pending since 2016 for deciding the question if the fund is a “public authority” under section 2(h)(d) of the Right to Information Act, 2005.
One of the grounds in the application relates to the automatic deposit of amounts of electoral bonds. While Batra's application mainly seeks directions for disclosure of the information under RTI Act, he had also sought recommendations from the Central Information Commission (CIC) for clarification or amendment to the claims made by the PMNRF.
The website of PMNRF states that the fund consists entirely of public contributions and does not get any budgetary support. “The PMNRF accepts voluntary contributions from Individuals, Organizations, Trusts, Companies and Institutions etc,” it adds.
The intervention application, moved through Advocates Prasanna S, Swati Arya and Yuvraj Singh Rathore states that Section 12(2) of Electoral Bond Scheme, 2018 provides that “the amount of bonds not encashed within the validity period of fifteen days shall be deposited by the authorised bank to the Prime Minister Relief Fund.”
CIC Order and Observations of Single Judge
The genesis of the case is an RTI application moved by one Aseem Takyar to the CPIO of Prime Minister's Office (PMO) seeking information pertaining to various transactions made in PMNRF during the financial year 2009-2010 and 2010-2011.
While providing some information, the CPIO invoked exemption under section 8(l)(j) of the RTI Act, as the information related to amount, name and particular of each recipient and beneficiary.
In its final order, CIC had directed the CPIO to place details of institutional donors of PMNRF in public domain and to disclose the information to the petitioner.
A writ petition was then filed by the fund challenging the CIC order. Finding the impugned order as balanced, the single judge dismissed the appeal on November 10, 2015. However, it refrained from giving a conclusive finding as to whether PMNRf was a public authority.
Aggrieved by the single judge’s decision, the Fund filed the appeal.
Due to difference of opinion, a division bench on May 23, 2018 referred the matter to be decided by a third judge (single judge). While Justice Ravindra Bhat was of the view that there exists governmental control in the management of PMNRF and held it to be a public authority within the scope of RTI Act, Justice Sunil Gaur dissented and observed otherwise.
The appeal is presently being heard by Justice Suresh Kumar Kait. On January 20, the single judge ordered that Batra’s intervention application be listed before a division bench, subject to orders of Chief Justice on July 21.
Batra’s RTI Application and CIC Order
Batra filed a RTI application in 2020 seeking various details about PMNRF which were not available on the online platform. He sought complete list of files held in records of Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) on which the fund’s creation was discussed and processed and notings where it was declared as a “trust” by Income Tax Authorities.
The CPIO of PMO failed to respond to the RTI application within 30 days. Finally, after a lapse of 40 days, Batra approached first appellate authority which directed the CPIO to give a final response in 25 days.
Since no response was filed even after the direction of first appellate body, a second appeal was filed before Central Information Commission (CIC) seeking information under RTI application and also for imposing maximum penalties on the concerned authorities for delay.
During the pendency of second appeal, the CPIO of PMO responded on October 28, 2020, stating that the PMNRF is not a public authority under RTI Act and that relevant information regarding the fund may be seen on the official website.
Batra argued that CPIO’s response is “unsatisfactory and unreasonable” as it simply stated that the fund did not fall within the ambit of being a public authority. According to Batra, the CPIO did not explain the “abnormal and irregular delay” of almost 6 months in filing a “vague, ambiguous and unsatisfactory” one paragraph response.
Later, in June 15, 2022, Batra filed brief written submissions before CIC updating the grounds and arguments, bringing the Electoral Bond Scheme, 2018 to its notice.
It was submitted that the 2018 scheme is “completely inconsistent” with the stand of PMNRF that it only accepts “voluntary funds” by individuals and associations.
In this backdrop, Lokesh requested that information be provided to him under his RTI application and to also make recommendation to Central Government to make necessary amendments to the fund’s website and documentation by removing the claim that only voluntary donations from individuals and institutions are received.
On June 21, 2022, CIC disposed of the second appeal in view of the 2018 judgment of the division bench.
Concept of “Voluntary donations” under PMNRF in conflict with 2018 Electoral Bond Scheme: Intervention Application
The application submits that depositing amounts of electoral bond, which are not encashed within the validity period, with PMNRF, “by no stretch of imagination”, can be termed as a voluntary donation.
“In view of the above, it is a manifest claim by the Appellant that it only accepts voluntary donations from individuals, organizations, etc. and therefore, the Applicant had rightly sought recommendation from the CIC to the concerned authorities to change/amend/remove the said claim of the Appellant,” it states.
It has been submitted that registration of PMNRF as a trust for the purposes of income tax exemption, obtaining of Permanent Account Number (PAN) of the fund, qualify as an order made by the appropriate government.
“The Appellant body has all the trappings of being a public authority as the Appellant is headed by Constitutional Authority, i.e., the Prime Minister of India and administered by the Joint Secretary to the Prime Minister- as Secretary of the fund. In addition, who is assisted by the officer of the rank of a director. Furthermore, all disbursements from PMNRF are made solely on the discretion of the Prime Minister. He or she is a public authority and decisions taken by him or her with respect to operation of PMNRF cannot be said to be made in a personal capacity. The decisions of the Prime Minister in this regard must be taken to be official decisions,” it adds.
Stand of PMNRF in appeal proceedings
In the appeal, the PMNRF has contended that it is not obliged to provide any information as it is not a “public authority” under section 2(h) of the RTI Act.
It has also submitted that the information sought by Aseem Takyar is exempted under section 8(1)(j) of the RTI Act as it relates to personal information, the disclosure of which has no relationship to any public activity. It was submitted that such disclosure causes “unwarranted invasion of privacy of individuals.”
The fund has also submitted that it does not owe its establishment to an order of the government and does not receive any funds or finances by the government, thus, it is not a public authority under section 2(h).
A similar stand was recently taken by PMO while opposing a plea seeking a declaration that PM CARES Fund is "State" under Article 12 of the Constitution of India.
In a recent affidavit, the PMO stated that the PM CARES Fund is not a “State” under Article 12 and does not constitute as a “public authority” under RTI Act.
It also stated that the PM CARES Fund has been set up as a Public Charitable Trust and that it is not created by or under the Constitution of India or the Parliament or any State Legislature.
The reply further added that just like National Emblem and domain name 'gov.in' are being used for the PMNRF, the same are also being used for PM CARES Fund.
Title: Prime Minister's National Relief Fund v. Aseem Takyar