Specials

Behind locked doors in Fortress Raisina

Richa Mishra | Updated on January 17, 2018 Published on January 17, 2018

The taste of things to come: The ‘halwa ritual’ marks the beginning of the ofificers’ isolation (File photo from 2015)

For ten days, the officers involved in the preparation of the Union Budget are sequestered. Is the secrecy still warranted?





Most bureaucrats in India would love their CVs to show off a stint at Raisina Hill’s North Block, home to the Ministry of Finance in New Delhi. And being part of the Union Budget-making exercise is the icing on the cake.

Even as many believe the Union Budget is turning into just a white paper on the economy, the secrecy that shrouds the exercise still continues. North Block turns into a heavily guarded fortress and opens up only after the Finance Minister has presented the Budget. But is the secrecy really necessary?

When the beans were spilled

The legacy of secrecy has British roots – as do most of our parliamentary traditions. In 1947, Hugh Dalton, Chancellor of the Exchequer in the UK, was forced to resign from his post as he casually mentioned some details of the UK Budget to a journalist. The stock markets that were still open reacted. The incident had an effect on Independent India’s budget-making tradition as well.

India had its own share of scandal in the late 1950s with the Mundhra affair, which led to the sacking of India’s then finance minister TT Krishnamachari, exposing the nexus between bureaucrats, stock market speculators and businessmen. The need for secrecy only intensified.

Over the years the vigil over the Budget document has become tighter and tighter. For ten days, those involved in the process are confined to North Block without any access to phone and no interaction with the outside world. Their food is cooked on the premises. The only source of entertainment is television. In case of a medical emergency or the need to contact family members, Intelligence Bureau officials will escort the person to a room where calls can be made in their presence. Electronic surveillance is high.

So who are these 100-odd people who go underground for 8-10 days before the Budget is presented?

They are mainly lower-cadre officers from the Budget division of the Finance Ministry and other departments, including printing press officials. What dictates the choice and how are they selected? “Experience matters the most,” says an official who had been part of the exercise. But, he is also quick to add that today “experience and calibre is an issue.”

While they are quarantined, the document is edited, proof-read, and printed. The last document to be handled is the Finance Minister’s speech.

Given the long confinement, do people really want to be part of the exercise? Contrary to common perception, this is a much-in-demand position, says the official. “Not only are these people incentivised (financially), they also go down in history as being part of the Budget-making exercise,” he says, adding that it is seen as a ‘badge of honour’.

The need for confinement

A lot of Budgetary traditions have been changed – the timing for one, and even the schedule. Will secrecy too become a thing of the past? Several countries are quite open about the exercise – Australia is a case in point. And the question is all the more important given that discussions on GST rates are now in the public domain. No longer is there any speculation over taxation. Earlier secrecy was maintained due to tax rates, particularly indirect, being announced in the Budget.

D Swarup, former Secretary (Expenditure & Budget), who has spent many a season being part of the Budget-making exercise agrees that “the time has also come to have a re-think on the practice to keep Budget preparation work absolutely secret”. He says Budget documents could be treated like several other government papers classified as ‘secret’ and the decades-old practice of ‘lock in’ could be given up.

“The issue of parliamentary privilege may, however, arise and will need to be overcome,” he says.

Agrees another senior official: “The Budget has to be first presented to the Parliament before it can be discussed elsewhere.”

So the drama continues. The whole process or the most guarded and ‘secretive’ operation begins with the much talked about ‘Halwa Ceremony’, in which the Finance Minister participates.

“But, when they leave, some carry physical copies of the Budget to show their family and friends that they have been part of India’s history,” says a senior official, adding that “they walk with an attitude for the rest of their career.”

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Published on January 17, 2018
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