Last year in May, the prime minister’s office (PMO), in an official release, had announced allocating Rs100 to support the COVID-19 vaccine designers and developers from the PM’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations (PM CARES) Fund. However, the Union government does not seem to have any answers about whether it received Rs100 crore from the PM CARES Fund. Applications and appeal filed under Right to Information (RTI) have remained unanswered from several departments and ministries.
On 16 July 2021, Commodore Lokesh Batra (retd) applied under the RTI Act to the ministry of health and family welfare (MoHFW), seeking information about funds allocated by PM CARES Fund and spent by the Union government on COVID vaccine development. It has been nearly four months. However, Cmde Batra has not received any information from the government.
He says, “My RTI application was making rounds of various public authorities like the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), Department of Bio-Technology, the PMO, National Institution for Transforming India (NITI Aayog) and Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation (CDSCO). On 18 August 2021, I even filed an appeal with the first appellate authority (FAA) in the MoHFW, but there is no response.”
On 13 May 2020, in an official release
, the PMO stated, “A vaccine against COVID-19 is the most pressing need and Indian academia, start-ups and industry have come together in cutting-edge vaccine design and development. To support the COVID-19 vaccine designers and developers, an amount of Rs100 crore will be given from PM CARES Fund as a helping hand to catalyse vaccine development, which will be utilised under the supervision of Principal Scientific Advisor.”
Since there was no information available about the allocation of Rs100 crore from the PM CARES Fund, Cmde Batra decided to file an RTI.
In his RTI application, he asked for information for three financial years (FYs) 19-20, 20-21 and 21-22 (till the time of reply), about:
(a) Provide 'Financial Year-wise' total Amount of PM-CARES Fund received by the government of India for ‘vaccine development’ relating to the ‘COVID-19 pandemic’. And out of that amount – ‘public authority/ organisation/ entitieswise’ paid and the amount expended by them for ‘vaccine development’ relating to the COVID-19, during the FYs2019-2020, 2020-2021 FY21-2022 - till the time of reply.
(b) Provide me ‘clear and detailed’ information on names of ‘public authority/ companies / organisation/entities-wise’ those involved and participated in ‘vaccine development’ relating to the COVID-19 using amount sanctioned and provided by PM-CARES Fund.
(c) Any other relevant and related information not covered above.
On 29 July 2021, Satyendra Singh, the central public information officer (CPIO) in the MoHFW, informed Cmde Batra that “As far as this office/CPIO for COVID-19 vaccine administration cell (CVAC) is concerned...no fund has been received from PM CARES Fund...However, your RTI application has been transferred or forwarded to the PMO, ICMR and Dept of Biotechnology.”
ICMR informed him on 9 August 2021 that “ICMR has not received any funds for COVID-19 vaccine development through PM CARES Fund.” The dept of biotechnology simply forwarded the RTI application to the NITI Aayog.
On the other hand, on 10 September 2021, the PMO disposed RTI filed by Cmde Batra, saying, “...it is stated that PM CARES Fund is no a public authority under the ambit of section 2(h) of the RTI Act. However, relevant information in respect of PM CARES Fund may be seen on the website pmcares.gov.in.”
Even when Cmde Batra filed the first appeal, the FAA(first appellate authority)of PMO reiterated the same thing on PM CARES Fund being out of the ambit of RTI Act. The FAA stated, “...it is held that information provided in respect of your RTI application suffice as they are as per available records. Since PM CARES Fund is not a public authority under the ambit of section 2(h) of the RTI Act, no further information could be shared with you.”
CDSCO(Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation) informed Cmde Batra that “CDSCO is a regulatory agency and regulates quality, safety and efficacy of drugs including vaccines as per new drugs and clinical trials rules under the Drugs and Cosmetics Act and has no role with respect to the funding and budget allocation for vaccine development.”
Cmde Batra, on 18 August 2021, filed the first appeal with the MoHFW. There is no response. He then sent as many as seven reminders to the FAA in the ministry but has yet to receive any response.
In fact, there is no response for his urgent email sent on 3rd November and 8 November 2021 sent to the Nodal CPIO in the health ministry.
While many CPIOs clearly told Cmde Batra that they had not received any funding from the PM CARES Fund for COVID-19 vaccine development and the PMO shirking its responsibility, the mystery of Rs100 crore allotment deepens.