New Delhi: It is 1 March and for the first time in (most of the last) 70 years, the headlines of the country’s newspaper have nothing to do with the Union Budget—usually presented on the last day of February. Effectively, it is a quiet burial of one more colonial vestige.

The presentation of the Union Budget has been advanced by a month. And if the buzz in government circles is indeed true, we are likely to see the date rolled back even earlier to the first week of January; hopefully, it won’t be 1 January.

Ironically, the first Union Budget of Independent India was not presented on the last day of February; instead, it was presented on 26 November 1947.

But departures from the customary practice of presenting it on 28 February happen in exceptional circumstances—most often in a general election year, when the incumbent government goes for a vote-on-account to keep the exchequer operational and leaves the task of charting the annual fiscal contours to the incoming regime.

The Union Budget is a key part of the annual economic calendar of India. Though it has changed in content and form over the years, it is a key influencer of the Indian economy. Not just Indian business, but global rating agencies and more recently foreign institutional investors closely scrutinize it.

Coincidentally, it was also the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government which, in 1999 made the first big change in the Union Budget routine by advancing the time it was presented from the customary 5pm to 11am in the morning.

That provided considerable relief to journalists who, beginning 1991 (after which, every finance minister has aspired to present a document replete with economic reforms and structural change), had the unenviable task of combing through the speech of the finance minister and churning out news headlines—all in the span of a little over three hours, considering that budget speeches rarely clock less than two hours.

The 5pm routine was a rather weird custom to hold on to, considering that it was first put in place to ensure that the budget process in India, then under British colonial rule, would be in sync with business hours in London; only after the British Parliament passed the Union Budget would it be cleared by the Indian Parliament.

This brings us to the logic of moving the budget to 1 February. It basically gives the Union government a full year to spend its budget. Normally, by the time the budget gets passed by Parliament in May—the actual spending would not begin before June—almost a quarter of the spending calendar has passed. From this year, the budget will be operational from 1 April.

Clearly, the government has hit the reset on the process of the Union Budget. So 1 March is a regular news day.

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