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Friday, February 20, 2015

Budget Secrecy, Halwa Ceremony: 100 finance ministry officials will be confined to North Block basement till Feb 28

THE printing process of the Budget document to be presented by union finance minister Arun Jaitley on February 28 began in the basement of North Block on Friday after the finance ministry bigwigs participated in a traditional event called “halwa ceremony”. As finance minister and North Block officials enjoyed the halwa (see photo), the final chapter on budget secretary, something unheard of in…
developed nations, actually began. Now, about 100 finance ministry officials won’t be allowed to go home or meet any guests in the office until the finance minister presents the Budget on February 28. It’s called “lock-in” period for the officials involved in making the Budget. Rajat Bhargava, joint secretary (Budget) will supervise the entire process. The phone calls to those officials are restricted and the urgent calls are also being monitored.
Usually, the government does not give much publicity to this process of secrecy though it’s a well-known fact. On Friday, the government chose to give a press statement on the halwa ceremony and how Budget secrecy is being maintained. “These officers will gain touch with their near and dear ones only after the Union Budget is presented by the Finance Minister on Saturday, 28th February, 2015,” said the statement.
What the press statement has not however talked about is the fact that senior officers, who have also seen the Budget, are allowed to go home. The key bureaucrats involved in making the Budget this year include finance secretary and Rajasthan cadre IAS Rajiv Mehrishi, revenue secretary and Tamil Nadu cadre IAS Shaktikanta Das, financial services secretary and Gujarat cadre IAS Dr Hasmukh Adhia, disinvestment secretary and Uttar Pradesh cadre IAS Ms Aradhna Johri and expenditure secretary Ratan P Watal.  Two top revenue officials, chairperson of CBDT Anita Kapur and CBEC chairman Kaushal Shrivastav are also involved in putting together the provisions related to direct and indirect taxes respectively.
Many of those officers are however are aware of the forthcoming Budget provisions of their work-area only. The revenue secretary, for example, won’t know what’s coming on banking and insurance. The officer who has however read the document from top to bottom is Rajat Bhargava, 1990 batch Andhra Pradesh cadre IAS and joint secretary (Budget).
It is believed that parts of the Budget would no longer be secret once the direct tax code (DTC) is implemented. Also, the Budgets in Western countries are more of a financial statement than a document on big-bang policy announcements. But in India, stock markets do react to it as the Budget has major tax implications and it is full of new policy announcements. And that forces the establishment to make the Budget making process a secret affair. 

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