Budget 2016-17 Enters Last Mile Run

New Delhi: With just a week to go, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s third budget has entered the last mile run cloaked in secrecy and apart from his statement that it will not be a populist one and will address the problem of under-investment in the economy, very little is known about it.

Though the customary secrecy has enveloped parts of the North Block, 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 the budget in a leather briefcase.

Usually teeming with journalists, the wing of North Block is strictly off limits to them and general public since the beginning of January.

With a special X-ray scan, everything that goes in or out of the North Block is being monitored. Also, powerful mobile phone jammers block calls to prevent leakage of any information.

Internet connections in the offices of the 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.

The highest level of security measures is enforced at the North Block till the budget is presented in the Lok Sabha. The Intelligence Bureau (IB), the Delhi Police and the 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.

Mr 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’ – a dessert made of semolina and sugar, marking the beginning of budget-printing. (Read more)

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 the “blue jacket” – it is called so because it contains key numbers for the budget which are constantly updated and form the bedrock of the calculations that drive the entire economic planning process for the fiscal year.

A senior ministry mandarin, Joint Secretary (Budget), is in-charge of it who cannot let anyone, not even the Finance Minister, carry it out of the North Block. During the entire budget-making process, it is only a handful of 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 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 eleventh hour.

The Finance Ministry’s budget speech is finalised only hours before the D-Day.

This time around, the stakes are especially high, as Mr Jaitley is tasked with kick-starting growth and addressing the problem of under-investment while at the same time reining in fiscal deficit.

With limited resources, he faces the tough task of keeping his party’s vocal vote-base in the 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 the tax front, which would restore confidence of investors spooked by moves like taxing overseas deals involving Indian assets retroactively.

From 1947 (the 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 budget-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, proofreading 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. By convention, Union budget has been presented in the Lok Sabha by the Finance Minister on the last working day of the month of February every year.

The Finance Minister, by convention, makes a speech while introducing the budget. The annual financial statement is laid on the table of the Rajya Sabha only after the Finance Minister concludes his budget speech in the Lok Sabha.

The budget documents are made available after the Finance Bill is introduced in the Lok Sabha, and the house is adjourned for the day.