Modi’s Covid charity under scrutiny over faulty ventilators

Complaints that hundreds of ventilators bought with Narendra Modi’s signature Covid-19 recovery fund do not work have sparked transparency and corruption concerns over how the charity spends its money.

PM Cares was set up in March last year by the Indian prime minister as a public charitable trust to “provide relief to the affected” during disasters. Modi heads the fund in his official capacity, along with three cabinet members who serve as trustees.

In the five days after it launched, the fund attracted more than Rs30bn ($423m) in donations from tycoons such as Mukesh Ambani and Indian state-owned enterprises.

Donations have continued to pour in from inside the country as well as abroad from personalities as diverse as the Dalai Lama and Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin during India’s calamitous second wave. But critics complain that there is little transparency on how PM Cares spends its donations.

Activists have also questioned why PM Cares was even established as another facility, the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund, already exists, serving a similar purpose.

The controversy has grown as state governments struggle to provide healthcare during a pandemic in which more than 28m people have been infected and more than 335,000 killed.

The Indian government maintains that PM Cares is not a public authority and is therefore not required to disclose its donors or spending in detail.

A government spokesman said on Wednesday that “PM Cares is fully transparent. Expenditure incurred under PM Cares has been transparently put in [the] public domain.”

The fund has yet to release the audited results of the financial year ending March 31, 2021.

“We have learned that unless there is openness and public scrutiny, very often funds don’t reach people that they are intended for,” said anti-corruption campaigner Anjali Bhardwaj, who is based in New Delhi. “It leads to misappropriation, arbitrariness and corruption.”

PM Cares uses Modi’s image and releases its press statements on India’s government websites. Some government sites have a pop-up asking visitors to donate.

According to the PM Cares website, the government has allocated Rs20bn to buy 50,000 “Made in India” ventilators, Rs10bn for migrant labourers hit by job losses following lockdowns and Rs1bn for vaccine development. It provided no other details.

“We are dependent on the information they [PM Cares] give us, there are really no disclosures at all,” said transparency activist Saket Gokhale, who has filed a petition in the Supreme Court to disclose PM Cares’ spending. The fund, he added, was “opaque, which is a big red flag”. 

Several opposition-controlled states have complained that the ventilators purchased using PM Cares money were faulty or were not set up properly in the hospitals so cannot be used.

“The oxygen flow is erratic. The censor doesn’t work. It stops abruptly,” said Raghu Sharma, health minister of the state of Rajasthan. “Such a large sum of money has been spent in procuring these ventilators but these cannot be used.”

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Raj Bahadur, the health adviser to the Punjab government, said that 237 of the 320 ventilators donated to the state by PM Cares were faulty.

“The ventilators are not working to the levels they should, I am sure there is some defect,” said Bahadur.

New Delhi said that states had not installed all the donated ventilators and that the central government conducted a “vigorous follow up” to help use the life-saving machines.

The High Court of Bombay said last week that malfunctioning ventilators in government hospitals in Aurangabad, in Maharashtra, were a “serious issue”.

The judges added: “If the PM Cares fund is to be used for providing ventilators, it should be ventilators worthy of medical use.”

However, the government has filed an affidavit denying that the Aurangabad ventilators made by manufacturer Jyoti CNC were supplied through PM Cares.

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