The union budget, before it is presented by the Finance Minister in the Parliament, is shrouded under a cloak of secrecy. The security is so foolproof that around 100 officials from the finance ministry are cloistered inside a basement for at least 10 days.
The whole exercise kicks off with a customary ritual where halwa, an Indian dessert, is distributed among the Finance Ministry staff. The ceremony takes place in the presence of the Finance Minister. Soon after the sweets are served, the officials who are tasked with printing of budget are locked up in a basement in North Block.
Blue Sheet, a blue piece of paper containing key numbers around which hundreds of pages of budget document is prepared is almost guarded like the secret archives in the Vatican. Not even the Finance Minister is allowed to keep it. The secret sheet, which is updated as and when the new data comes in, forms the backbone of the whole budget process.
Only the joint secretary (budget) is entrusted to keep the custody of the secret paper. The first blue sheet draft gets prepared a few weeks before the budget date. It includes budget proposals on government's annual spending plan.
Until 1950, budget papers were printed inside Rashtrapati Bhavan. However, after a leak during the same year, printing venue was moved to a government press in Minto Road. Ever since 1980, the basement in North Block has become the unchanged dugout for budget printing.
The security apparatus pressed into service soon after the halwa ceremony ends is so elaborate that even Finance Minister can't take his mobile phone inside the printing area. Round the clock surveillance of officials involved in the budget process is carried out by no less than Intelligence Bureau personnel.
Till the time Finance minister announces the budget, elaborate arrangements are made for the food and lodging of officials associated with the printing process. The quarantined officials are not allowed to call their loved ones during the lock-in period. In case of an emergency, the person is escorted to a room where calls can be made in the presence of an intelligence officer.
North Block, where the Finance Ministry is located, turns into a fortress. Security agencies keep a close track of incoming and outgoing phone calls. To intercept any communication related to the secret documents, an intercepting exchange is set up to tap landline telephones installed in the chambers of bureaucrats.
As the budget day gets closer, the e-mail facility on the computers of finance ministry is blocked, hardly leaving any room for a data breach. To prevent any cyber theft, the computers inside the press area are delinked from National Informatics Centre (NIC) servers.
To prevent leakage, electronic jammers are installed inside North Block ensuring that no information is leaked using mobile phones. Finance Secretary and other top FinMin officials are also provided with security cover. The Delhi Police assists IB by keeping a close watch on movements of finance ministry officials.
Even though the leaking of budget documents is a punishable under the Officials Secrets Act, the presence of Intelligence Bureau spooks adds another dimension to the security in the whole printing process.
It's not just the officials from finance ministry who are sequestered inside the basement before the budget is made public, some legal experts from the law ministry, Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT), the Central Board of Excise and Customs (CBEC) officials are also taken in. A few days before the Budget speech, a few PIB officials are also sent to the basement to churn out press releases.
Notwithstanding the confinement, being part of the budget making process is apparently the most sought after job among the finance ministry staff.
While many wonder if the level of secrecy is still warranted at a time when all major government announcements including the GST tax rates have not been part of the budget, the meticulous secrecy is a well-preserved British legacy just like the budget briefcase used by the Finance Minister on the budget day.