NEW DELHI: Opposition parties like the Congress, DMK and the TMC on Saturday opposed in Lok Sabha the setting up of the PM CARES Fund, saying it lacked transparency, a charge rejected by the government with Union Minister Anurag Thakur hitting back at Congress over alleged donations from government departments to trusts run by the Gandhi family members when the party was in power.
They were participating in the debate on a bill to give effect to various compliance relief measures for taxpayers, including extending time limits for filing returns, in the wake of the coronavirus crisis and tax benefits for donations to PM CARES Fund.
The opposition members targeted the government on the issue of Prime Minister's Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations (PMCARES) Fund, announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in March so that people can contribute and help in the government's fight against the coronavirus.
"I can't understand the logic to have a separate fund. What is the difference between the Prime Minister's National Relief Fund and the PM CARES Fund," said N K Premachandran (RSP), who initiated the debate on The Taxation and Other Laws (Relaxation and Amendment of Certain Provisions) Bill, 2020.
He alleged the PM CARES Fund "lacks transparency as it is not audited by Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG). Further RTI is also not applicable".
"The question of transparency and accountability is the main issue I want to highlight," he said.
Intervening in the debate Minister of State for Finance Thakur asserted that the PM CARES Fund has been brought with full transparency.
The members of PM CARES fund are the prime minister, the home minster, the finance minister and the defence minster.
But in the case of Prime Minister's National Relief Fund (PMNRF), the Congress president was also a member.
"Why was the Indian National Congress (INC) president a member of PMNRF," he asked the Congress members, alleging that the PMNRF was controlled by "a family".
Mahua Moitra (TMC) opposed the Bill.
She said the PM CARES Fund is against public interest as it is not answerable to Parliament even though it collects funds from the public.
She said that 38 public sector companies contributed Rs 2,100 crore to the Fund.
This is 70 per cent of the total corpus, she said, adding it should therefore be answerable to Parliament.
She also alleged that the Fund got money from Chinese firms like Tik Tok banned by India and wondered why the government did not return the donations from such companies.
"Prime Ministers will come and go, but the existence of a fund is not up for discussion? What is this need to name everything after one individual.
"First, you are raising a fund on the basis of a public office. By saying it is not open to RTI, you are running away from transparency," Moitra said.
The Bill amends the provisions of the Income Tax Act to provide the same tax treatment to PM-CARES Fund as available to the Prime Minister's National Relief Fund.
"The donation made to the PM CARES Fund shall be eligible for 100 per cent deduction under section 80G of the IT Act. Further, the limit on deduction of 10 per cent of gross income shall also not be applicable for donation made to PM CARES Fund," an official statement had said.
Backing the fund, Bhartuhari Mahtab (BJD) said he hoped the PM CARES Fund is not only created to tackle COVID-19 but also for different calamities.
Amid protests by Congress members, Thakur persisted with his attack on the party.
He said PMNRF was formed in 1948 but was not registered under relevant sections of prevailing laws.
He referred to section 12 (A) apparently of the Companies Act.
He alleged that it was audited by a private auditor.
Thakur alleged that "they" used to take money from one and pass on the money to the family from other hand.
He also claimed that funds used to be transferred from PMNRF to Rajiv Gandhi Foundation.
He pointed out that Congress had maintained that PMNRF as a public charitable trust, so that there is no need for an audit by CAG.
"The money contributed in PM CARES fund so far is five times the money contributed in PMNRF during the UPA period. Does not it show the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi," he asked.
Referring to demands to bring PM CARES under the ambit of the RTI, Thakur said, "You had gone to the Delhi High Court against the order of CIC in the case of PMNRF. This is your double standard".
"They have looted all government institutions. They have taken money from all industrial houses and hardly spared any industrial house," he said.
He alleged that one family considers India as its fiefdom.
He also alleged that they took money from Islamist preacher Zakir Naik in 2011 and returned it in 2014.
He wondered why it took so long to return the donation.
"Did you return money with interest or without interest," he quipped.
The junior minister in the Finance Ministry also used the opportunity to hit out at the leader of Congress party in Lok Sabha Adhir Ranjan Choudhury who had used an objectionable term for Thakur.
Choudhury said he meant that Thakur was a young man.
Union ministers Nirmala Sitharaman and Ravi Shankar Prasad urged the Speaker to remove the term from the records.
Speaker Om Birla said he is removing the term from records and replacing it with "mananiya" (respected).
Earlier, opposing the Bill, Manickam Tagore (Congress) also raised the issue of transparency in the PM CARES Fund.
He wondered if a chief minister of any state can say that he will not disclose the spending under the Chief Minister's Relief Fund.
He alleged that just like demonetisation, the Modi government is providing another opportunity "to convert blackmoney into white".
Without naming anyone, he said "AA battery" is running the Modi government which is why "most of the government contracts are going to some particular companies".
Arvind Sawant (Shiv Sena) said the way tax relief has been given to those who donate money to the PM CARES Fund, similar relief should be extended to the fund created by the Maharashtra government.