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What's on in the North Block as Budget 2016 enters last mile run

The final lap began on February 19 with the traditional halwa ceremony, which marked the commencement of the printing process of documents of Union Budget 2016-17.

BT Online   New Delhi     Last Updated: February 22, 2016  | 15:12 IST
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley (Photo: Reuters)

Whether it is the finance secretaries taking to YouTube to communicate about the Budget 2016-17 or the crowd of journalists that usually flock the North Block, being kept strictly off limits, Arun Jaitley's second full-fledged budget has already offered a lot of firsts this year.

With just a week to go, the NDA government's Union Budget has entered the last mile run cloaked in secrecy, with very little known about it. The only thing however known is that the Budget may not offer much tax concessions and may even be tough on some sectors with Jaitley issuing a statement that it will not be a populist one as the government aims to address the problem of under-investment in the economy.

The customary secrecy is natural at the onset of Budget every year, however, this year is the first when secretaries in the Finance Ministry have taken to YouTube to communicate the direction of the Union Budget 2016-17. Making use of its own YouTube channel, the ministry also showcased the importance of budget and traditions like finance minister carrying his Budget in a leather briefcase.

The wing of North Block has been strictly off limits to journalists and general public since beginning January. With special X-ray scan, everything that goes in or out of North Block is being monitored. Also powerful mobile phone jammers block calls to prevent leakage of any information. Internet connections in the offices of senior officers and staff involved in the process are shut-down and the Budget wing of North Block is no less than a war room.

Highest level of security measures are enforced at North Block till the Budget is presented in Lok Sabha. The Intelligence Bureau (IB), Delhi Police and CISF are all involved in security of this zone.

The final lap began on Friday with the traditional halwa ceremony, which marked the commencement of the printing process of documents of Union Budget 2016-17. The ceremony does not involve any puja or worship. Jaitley and officials associated with the preparation of the Budget and its printing gathered at the printing press situated in the basement of the North Block, exchanged wishes and distributed halwa - the dessert made of semolina and sugar, marking the beginning of Budget printing.

And so has begun the countdown to budget day Parliament's most important calendar event. Budget is usually presented on the last day of February and this year it will be on Monday, February 29, few weeks before states like West Bengal, Kerala and Assam go to polls.

The most guarded of all documents is a blue jacket - it is called so because it contains key numbers for the budget, which are constantly updated, and forms the bedrock of the calculations that drive the entire economic planning process for the fiscal.

A senior ministry mandarin, joint secretary (budget) is in-charge of it and he cannot let anyone, not even the Finance Minister, carry it out of the North Block. And during the entire budget-making process, it is only a handful of the ministry brass who get to see this document. Work on the budget typically starts in September on estimates of expenditure and receipts for the ensuing financial year for various ministries.

During this stage, the revenue-earning ministries of the Union government provide the estimates for their revenue receipts in the current fiscal year (revised estimates) and next fiscal year (budget estimates). These are matched with projected expenditure for social sectors as well as flagship schemes of the government.

Inputs on measures, including tax and allocations, needed for different sectors and industries are received. Ceilings on expenditure for most ministries are fixed by the third week of December. By then, an assessment of revenue and market borrowings is also made and the first draft of the budget sees the light. By the first week of January, estimates of tax revenue come in and by the end of the month, estimates of major subsidies and defense expenditure are finalised.

Discussions on taxes corporate, sector-specific and personal start in January and the proposals are completed at the 11th hour. Finance Ministry's budget speech is finalised only hours before the D-Day. This time around, the stakes are especially high, as Jaitley is tasked with kick-start growth and address the problem of under-investment while at the same time reining in fiscal and deficit. With limited resources, he faces the tough task of keeping his party's vocal vote-base in middle-class happy as well as address structural issues facing sectors like agriculture and infrastructure.

Not many expect big-bang announcements but certainly a roadmap for economic reforms ahead, particularly on tax front that would restore confidence of investors spooked by moves like taxing overseas deals involving Indian assets retroactively. From 1947 (First Budget was tabled in the Parliament on November 26, 1947) to 1950, printing took place at Rashtrapati Bhawan, till the Budget got leaked in 1950. The venue was then shifted to a government press on Minto Road.

Since 1980, the North Block basement has become the permanent place for printing. The Budget press is fully air-conditioned, with modern printing machines. After the halwa ceremony, up to 100 volunteers are taken down to the basement of the North Block, which houses two printing presses, and confined there with no contact with the outside world till the whole exercise is over. These people are involved in printing, proof reading and translation. There are no phones inside the Printing Press for outward communication.

The intelligence agency also monitors landline telephone numbers installed in the chambers of officials through intercepting mechanism. Only, the finance minister has the right to enter and exit this highly protected zone. As per the Constitution, the Union budget is to be presented in the Lok Sabha on such a day as the President may direct.

The annual financial statement is laid on the table of Rajya Sabha only after the finance minister concludes his budget speech in Lok Sabha. The budget documents are made available after the finance bill has been introduced in Lok Sabha, and the House has been adjourned for the day.

(With inputs from agency)

 

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