Friday, January 24, 2020

Union budget and the halwa ceremony

Ratul Dhiman

All eyes are on the incumbent government’s last budget before the general elections. The budget shall be presented on February 1st, this will be Narendra Modi led NDA government’s sixth budget and it would be an interim budget rather than full year budget.

An interim budget is generally presented when a government is going through a transition period and a new Loksabha is expected to be voted into the office after general elections. The new government then presents a full year budget after assuming the office. It’s a traditional practice in India to present interim budget before general elections but this time speculations are being made that the incumbent government may prefer to go for complete budget.

Earlier the country’s annual budget was presented on the last working day of the February, but now since 2017 the colonial tradition of presenting budget on last day of February has been scrapped and instead the budget is presented on the first day of February. This provides government departments more room to spend the funds as well as allows companies some extra time to adapt to the new financial plans.

The entire process of preparing budget is an arduous one and takes a good time to get over, as it detrimental to the country’s economic course over the budget period. Before the Finance minister presents the budget in the parliament, a lot of hard work goes on behind the doors of finance ministry located in North Block. 

The whole exercise is carried out in top secrecy at the North Block in the national Capital. Until 1950, budget papers were prepared and printed inside Rashtrapati Bhawan. However, after a leak during the same year, printing process was shifted to a government printing press. Ever since 1980, the basement in North Block has become the unchanged station for the budget printing.

One may find the entire budget making process quite onerous, but there is also a sweeter side of this process. Going by the traditions of the country that is widely known for its inclusive rituals and customs and where anything sweet is considered auspicious before any crucial task, the Ministry of Finance holds a ‘Halwa ceremony’ 10 days before the presentation of Union budget in the parliament. The Halwa ceremony marks the beginning of the last mile run in the preparation of Union budget.

This particular ceremony kicks off the budget printing process wherein the Finance minister along with other officials are served halwa in the North block just before the print of upcoming budget goes into the process  of printing. As a part of ritual, halwa is prepared in a big wok and served to the staff. With that celebration done, officials who are tasked with printing of budget are locked up in basement of North block.

The key documents are strongly guarded and not even the Finance minister is allowed to keep them. Soon after the halwa ceremony the entire North block is turned into fortress, with para-military forces all around with jammers and other measures are strengthened to guard the next financial year’s budget.

The halwa ceremony is considered to be a non verbal promise to keep the budget guarded and reserve a blind blanket over the budget process to maintain utmost secrecy until the budget is announced in the parliament. After this ceremony is over, a large number of officials and staff members who are directly involved in budget making or printing are required to stay in ministry and remain cut off from their families till the budget is presented in the parliament.

During this entire time, these officials are not even allowed to use their mobile phones of any other medium of communication. In case of any emergency the quarantined staff members are escorted to a room where calls can be made in the presence of an intelligence officer. Finance secretary and top officials are also provided with the security cover.

It is now in open knowledge that not just the officials from finance ministry are quarantined inside the basement before the budget is made public, but some officials from law ministry and other central ministries and authorities are taken in. The sequestered employees involved in the printing process emerge only after the budget is presented by the finance minister.

Apart from the amusing halwa ceremony, few other customary practices associated with budget are still intact. Keeping the union budget utmost secret before its formal announcement is also a colonial legacy which has been meticulously preserved and so is the case of the vintage ‘budget briefcase’ which is carried by Finance ministers on the budget day.

However, in 2018, the then finance minister of J&K Haseeb Drabu while presenting the state budget made a shift from the traditional practice by reading out his budget speech from tablet PC while the customary leather briefcase was carried by his counterpart Ajay Nanda the then MoS finance. Until now, it was the only exception to this en vogue customary practice of carrying leather briefcase on the budget day.

The history of halwa ceremony dates back to decades and this year it was hosted on January 21st, in which the MoS finance Shiv Pratap Shukla and Pon Radhakrihnan presided over the symbolic ceremony in the absence of Finance minister Arun Jaitley’s absence owing his medical treatment in USA, meanwhile, Piyush Goyal is made the interim finance minster until Jaitley re-assumes his office after recovering.

Meanwhile, all we can do is to treat ourselves with a bowl of halwa in this cold winters and hope that just like taste-bud tempting halwa, the upcoming budget too brings delight for the masses.

Writer is a student of the Law School


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