New Delhi: It is well known that the Union Budget is always presented on the last day of February. But few know about the secrecy that shrouds this annual ritual.
So elaborate is the exercise that most of finance minister P. Chidambaram’s colleagues are none the wiser about his proposals until minutes before he begins the Budget speech at 11am.
“A Cabinet meeting is called inside Parliament House just 15 minutes before the Budget presentation and all ministers are handed a two-page gist of the proposals,” recalled Suresh Prabhu, power minister in the previous government. “The cabinet ministers can read the note, but they cannot carry it with them when they leave the meeting. That’s all the finance minister does to fulfil his obligation of obtaining the cabinet’s approval.”
Meanwhile, the entire team that works on writing, printing and releasing the final document to the media is held under virtual house arrest. North Block, atop New Delhi’s Raisina Hill, which houses the finance ministry, turns into a bit of a fortress. Nobody can get in without being screened by the Intelligence Bureau. And nobody who is privy to any part of the Budget document can leave the building until the Budget presentation is complete.
The actual printing begins almost a fortnight before Budget day with the actual speech being the final document to be printed.
In the last two years, senior officials say Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been vetting the Budget speech. Understandably, with the government on the backfoot in light of the growing inflationary pressures and the electoral defeats in Uttaranchal and Punjab, political inputs in the Budget speech are now more likely than before.
Chidambaram, meanwhile, spends the last weekend before the Budget, making sure the various ministries vouch for the numbers in the Budget.
The Budget document is printed at a press on the ground floor of North Block, where officials involved with the process are denied access to telephones or the Web. They are completely cut off from the outside and even end up sleeping in a dormitory in the basement throughout this period.
The final leg only tells part of the story.
Around 50 officials from the finance ministry began work in October by convening a meeting of financial advisors of all Central ministries. Each ministry is asked to submit estimates of its expenditure by November. The ministries submit their estimates based on the current year’s performance. But these numbers are later revised after detailed discussions with the finance ministry’s expenditure division. By the middle of January, security guards are posted outside the doors of key officials in the expenditure division to avoid any unexpected visitors.
Concurrently, the finance ministry’s revenue department, which deals with the tax-related proposals, also begins its own extensive exercise. The department has detailed meetings with industry associations seeking their suggestions on the changes they desire in the taxation structure.
Around 30 officials are selected from the tax research unit, focused on indirect taxes, and the tax policy and legislation unit, dealing with direct taxes, to work on the Budget. By the first week of January, the two offices are made to give up their Internet connections and all their phones are tapped. Nobody can enter or leave these offices without an access card.
“You are privy to a lot of important information and your integrity is under scrutiny at all times,” said one official who did not want to be quoted.
Two days before the Budget presentation, it is the turn of the Press Information Bureau to swing into action.
The bureau officer in charge of the finance ministry prepares a list of 15-20 officials who, in turn, prepare press releases from the Budget documents in English, Hindi and Urdu. The entire staff, including drivers and peons, need to be cleared by the Intelligence Bureau and then their computers, printers and photocopiers are moved to North Block on 26 February.
The next day, the equipment is thoroughly chec-ked. The officials are transfe-rred from the bureau to North Block once the Budget documents are ready. They are held in quarantine from around 2am on 28 February until the finance minister’s Budget speech is over.
So, when the speech does get over, the finance minister is by no means the only one who can heave a sigh of relief. Until October 2007, that is.
Pragya Singh contributed to this story.