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Monday, Jul 05, 2004

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A belated Budget session

R. C. Rajamani

As many as 28 new Bills are to be introduced, considered and passed by the Lok Sabha during the Budget session. Of these, 18 are finance-related, either directly or indirectly.

FOUR months late! Yes, that is how the Railway Budget 2004-05 will arrive in Parliament on July 6. So will General Budget 2004-05, on July 8.

Usually, the Budget session begins in February and the Finance Bill, giving Parliament's seal of approval to all Budget proposals, is passed before the end of the session in the first or second week of May. Of course, there have been delayed Budgets as, for instance, in 1991, 1996 and 1998 when new Lok Sabha were constituted after February.

The current session is in two parts, the first ending on July 23 to make for a Parliamentary recess of three weeks that will help Parliamentary Committees discuss the Budget proposals. Both Houses will reconvene on August 16.

The session is slated to end on September 3. The NDA government had taken a vote on account in January, before the general elections, for government expenditures till July 31. The Finance Bill may not be passed by that time. So, there could be another vote on account, providing time to Parliament to pass the Finance Bill before the session ends early September.

In fact, the time of the start of the Budget session is normally the time for the monsoon session. Though monsoon clouds are yet to gather over the national capital, certainly a political storm has been gathering. The session begins in the backdrop of the unprecedented replacement of a few Governors who were appointed by the previous dispensation.

The BJP and its NDA allies are agitated over the continuation of the `tainted' ministers in the Manmohan Singh government.

Having virtually derailed the very first session of the new 14th Lok Sabha over this issue, the alliance has indicated there would be no change in its attitude on this question. The alliance has said it would not cooperate with the government in Parliament.

If there were to be a change of attitude on NDA's part, it would be known only hours before the second session of the new Lok Sabha begins today (Monday). The governors issue has given it a further handle to try and put the government on the mat.

So, every thing seems set for yet another stormy session. The new Speaker, Mr Somnath Chatterjee, has spoken his mind on the confrontationist course the Opposition is determined to take in Parliament. He has also delivered some homilies on the decorum legislators must maintain. Parliamentarians must realise that they are responsible representatives of the people and have a commitment to their electorate.

They have to do this, considering the backlog of legislative business. As many as 30 Bills are pending in the Rajya Sabha, most having a bearing on the finances and economy of the country. Of these, some have been cleared by the standing committees of ministries and other still pending with them. As many as 28 new Bills are to be introduced, considered and passed by the Lok Sabha during the session.

Of these, 18 are finance-related, either directly or indirectly. Among these Bills, quite a few are reforms-oriented and need to be approved without further delay if liberalisation is to be carried on in its logical course.

There are great expectations about the Budget 2004-05. The pro-reforms section is happy that the man who will unveil the economic agenda for the next nine months is going to be the whiz kid of the brave, new liberalisation era, the Harvard-educated Palanippan Chidambaram.

After all, he is reputed to have presented the "Dream Budget" some years ago under the United Front government. Going by the Finance Minister's pronouncements so far, the Budget is expected to be growth-oriented and improve investment climate both within and outside the country, encourage savings, control unproductive government expenditure, and remove unnecessary hurdles in the growth of industry.

While reform-friendly, it is at the same time expected to have a `human face' to it. This aspect has been stressed time and again by the Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh himself, the original protagonist of the reforms.

His recent meeting with farmers in Andhra Pradesh and his assurances to them only reinforces the general belief that the budget is not going to neglect the vast agriculture sector that accounts for pretty close to 70 per cent of the Gross National Product (GDP).

On July 8, Chidambaram will unveil the Union Budget 2004 under conditions and circumstances quite different from what had obtained when he presented the "Dream Budget". Now, he has to operate under greater constraints.

The constraints and compulsions of the current coalition are far greater than the one he did face on the last occasion. For, he will be presenting the Budget of the first ever coalition led by the Congress that was for long loath to share power with anyone. Though technically, he is not from the Congress, he is hardly any distance from the Congress ideology and tradition he imbibed when he began his political innings with that party many years ago.

The happy tidings before the `B' Day is that the economy is in better shape in terms of GDP which is estimated to have grown at 8.2 per cent in the last fiscal.

The foreign exchange reserves continue to go up. Will he meet the high expectations of the market, the farm sector, the industry as a whole, the salaried class and the vast sections of the poor, forever on the margins in the unorganised sector, all at once?

No doubt, Mr Chidambaram has an unenviable job on his hands. Best of Luck Mr Finance Minister!

(The author, a former Deputy Editor with PTI, is a New Delhi-based freelance journalist.)

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