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FM unfazed

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BUDGET-MAKING in India has truly become de-mystified. Gone are the days when the Finance Minister and his team would pour over documents in the dim-lit rooms of North Block, trying to balance the accounts and discover new avenues for raising resources.

Things are totally different now. With just about a month to go for the general budget, the Finance Minister, Mr P. Chidambaram, is the last man to be caged in.

On the contrary, he does manage to spend considerable time out of town. Last week, Mr Chidambaram took time off to fly to Manila for an Asian Development Bank meeting and followed it up with a four-day visit to Japan. Back in the country, he spent the weekend in Hyderabad, confabulating with fellow party men on the future of the Congress.

Soon, he takes off for Switzerland to be at Davos for World Economic Forum meet where he, along with the Commerce Minister, Mr Kamal Nath, and the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, Mr Montek Singh Ahluwalia, will stand in for the Prime Minister and add to the high profile Indian presence at the summit.

The Finance Minister can afford to do all this because (a) most of the policy initiatives are already in place and (b) the economy is in fine fettle. No wonder Mr Chidambaram sports a big smile these days.

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Extreme caution

What made the Government go through numerous Group of Ministers (GoM) meetings and committees before deciding on the bidders for the modernisation of Delhi and Mumbai airports?

Well, the way the bid evaluators had handled things, many senior Ministers in the GoM were afraid that after the Volcker report and the Quattrochhi issue, the Government could hardly afford to land up in another scam. It is a different matter though that the entire episode may not see a tame end as yet.

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Boxed-in

Corporates aspiring to take advantage of the new policy to allow the private sector into containerised rail services are intrigued by a particular stipulation. The policy announced by the Railway Minister, Mr Lalu Yadav, says that applications would be received from interested parties for only one month in a year. Unable to fathom why such a condition has been put, some companies approached the rail authorities, but were left none the wiser.

In fact, one official, tongue firmly in the cheek, explained that this was the Railway's version of the popular TV programme,

Kaun Banega Crorepati

(KBC). "Like the KBC phone lines are open for a limited period for aspirants, our window to receive applications would also be open for a limited time,'' the officer explained.

Incidentally, there are some tell-tale signs in the container policy which hint that the initial idea was to limit private sector operations to export-import traffic only. The policy details that were handed over after the announcement had a common line added to each specified route that said "... and all domestic traffic.'' But for this addition, the private sector would have been confined to exim traffic alone.

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Gas leak!

The Petroleum Minister, Mr Mani Shankar Aiyar, with his erudition and notorious wit, normally gets the better of the media. But the leak of a sensitive document dealing with his Ministry's recommendation of increasing LPG and kerosene prices got the Minister's goat.

The day the news appeared Mr Aiyar was all fire and fury. "I feel like Ali Baba, surrounded by 40

chors

(thieves) who keeping stealing documents from my Ministry,'' yelled the Minister, infuriated by the fact that media persons kept grinning even as he threw wild accusations at them.

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Getting priorities right!

In these days of cut-throat competition, one presumed that companies would go all out to woo customers. In fact, most of them do by repeatedly calling up people on the phone. But a friend had a different experience.

Having received a call from one of the private insurance players, he politely told the lady on the line to call back a little later as he was busy on his cell phone. The lady, in turn, informed him that would not be possible, as her lunchtime would begin in 10-15 minutes. The friend was left wondering whether companies do any performance assessment of their general sales agents.

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Parliamentary preoccupations

Some nuggets of information about the functioning of Parliament. During the winter session, the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha had 23 sittings each. The Lok Sabha met for 120 hours and the Rajya Sabha met for 111 hours.

The Lok Sabha lost 26 hours (22 per cent of working hours) due to adjournment on account of interruptions. Rajya Sabha lost 25 hours (23 per cent) on this account. During the session, both Houses of Parliament passed 14 Bills. The Government introduced 24 Bills during the session.

New Delhi Bureau

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated January 27, 2006)
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