Nineteen months after the announcement by none other than the prime minister’s office (PMO), ministries and departments under the Union government do not have any answer about receiving any funding from the PM’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations (PM CARES) Fund. In May 2020, the PMO had announced allocating Rs100 crore to support the COVID-19 vaccine designers and developers. Yet, nobody knows if anyone has received funding from the PM CARES Fund for COVID vaccine development. Replies received on applications and appeals filed under Right to Information (RTI) too have remained elusive so far.
After not receiving proper answers from the ministry of health and family welfare (MoHFW) and other departments associated with the COVID vaccine development, Commodore Lokesh Batra (retd) filed an application under RTI with the MoHFW. On 17 November 2021, the department of health & family welfare transferred the RTI to the department of biotechnology (DBT) and the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). The central public information officer (CPIO) of DBT, on 12 December 2021, forwarded the RTI to Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC).
In its reply, the CPIO of BIRAC, on 7 January 2022, informed Cmde Batra that “Through public funds and Union of India budgetary provisions, an amount of Rs115.20 crore and Rs78.96 lakh has been disbursed under Mission COVID Suraksha and COVID-19 consortium, respectively towards research and development of COVID-19 vaccines.
After saying that the public authority-wise data of expenditure done for ‘vaccine development’ relating to the COVID-19 pandemic does not exist with BIRAC, on 13 January 2022 the CPIO provided the information to Cmde Batra.
However, on the query of expenditure done through PM-CARES Fund, the CPIO says, “The information does not exist with BIRAC.”
Replying to other points mentioned in the RTI application, the CPIO of DBT informed Cmde Batra that Mission COVID Suraksha - the Indian COVID-19 vaccine development mission - was announced as part of the third stimulus package, Atmanirbhar Bharat 3.0, for promoting research and development of Indian COVID-19 vaccines.
“The mission is led by the DBT and implemented by BIRAC, a public sector undertaking (PSU) of DBT, at a total cost of Rs900 crore. An amount of Rs180 crore and Rs500 crore has been released by DBT to BIRAC on 12 January 2021 and 21 September 2021, respectively,” the CPIO says.
Separately, the CPIO of ICMR told Cmde Batra that it has invested close to Rs55 crore for the development and clinical trials of Covaxin, Covishield and Covovax COVID-19 vaccines.
However, Cmde Batra says, "The CPIO failed to provide 'public authority-wise, organisation-wise and entities wise' data of expenditure done for 'vaccine development' relating to the 'COVID-19 pandemic'. That led to me filing an appeal with the first appellate authority (FAA) of ICMR - seeking point-wise complete information as requested. Even after 37 days of the appeal, and five email reminders, the FAA has not yet responded."
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, on 16 July 2021, Cmde Batra filed an RTI.
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 just 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 not 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.” (Read: PM CARES Fund: The Mystery of Rs100 Crore Allocated for Vaccine Development)
With many CPIOs informing Cmde Batra that they have either not received or have no information on any funding from the PM CARES Fund for COVID-19 vaccine development and the PMO shirking its responsibility, the Rs100 crore allotment continues to remain a mystery.