‘Decolonising’ Union Budget

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Vinod Sharma

Breaking away with all old conventions, practices, customs and rituals continuing since India’s independence, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Government is going to present its first paperless budget this year, implying that there will be no hard-copies available and the MPs will be accessing it electronically in Lok Sabha. This is the first time in the history of independent India that the budget papers will not be printed.
This means there will be no Halwa ceremony, which traditionally takes place before the printing process begins, with the Finance Minister, officers of the ministry and all others involved in budget-making enjoy delicious halwa to celebrate the auspicious occasion.
In a significant departure from tradition, the Finance Ministry has decided to dispense with printing of Budget 2021 due to COVID-19 pandemic as more than 100 people usually stay for almost a fortnight at basement of North Block-the seat of power of the crucial Finance Ministry-till budget is presented.
This time, since the printing of budget is not taking place, the question of holding Halwa ceremony does not arise. As a result, there will be no trucks loaded with Budget papers either, a familiar sight at Parliament on Budget Day.
Significantly, there will be no need for a Bahi-khata (ledger) to carry the budget papers. The incumbent Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had dropped the leather briefcase in favour of a traditional four-fold Bahi-khata, the kind often seen in the hands of Indian traders and also used to wrap religious texts.
In an attempt to ‘decolonise’ the Budget presentation, Sitharaman had abandoned the western legacy of a suave briefcase in 2019, saying, “I want to get out of the colonial hangover. Red-coloured notebooks are considered auspicious for money matters in Indian traditions and a means to worship the Goddess of wealth”
“It symbolises our departure from slavery of western thought. It is not a budget but a Bahi-khata”, the then Chief Economic Advisor had been quoted as saying before presentation of the budget. However, this year the practice of carrying budget papers in Bahi-khata has also been dispensed with since there is no printing of budget papers.
It may be recalled that the tradition of finance ministers carrying a briefcase outside the Parliament and posing for photographs had started when the country’s first finance minister R.K. Shanmukham Chetty presented the first-ever budget in Parliament on November 26, 1947. Earlier in 1860, British budget Chief William Ewart used a red suitcase, similar to the one used by England’s Queen.
The red suitcase used by Gladstone had Queen’s monogram embossed in gold to carry his bundle of papers.
In yet another departure, the NDA Government had preponed budget by a month since the year 2017 when the then Finance Minister ArunJaitely presented the budget on February 1 to ‘end the colonial-era traditional of presenting the Union Budget on last day of February and advance it by a month to help complete the legislative process for approval of annual spending plans and tax proposals before beginning of the new financial year on April 1’. Since then, the budget is being presented on February 1.
It is, however, a different matter whether the Union Ministries, States and other beneficiaries are able to get allocated funds in time after preponing budget date to carry out their works or not, but it’s a good deviation from the past practices, which Modi Government is eager to undo in its efforts to make the country a ‘new India’.
Not only this, the NDA dispensation has the unique distinction of ending the 92-year old tradition of having a separate Railway budget when the Union Cabinet in 2016 decided to merge Railway budget with the General budget.
The decision was based on the recommendations of a committee headed by then NITI Ayog member Bibek Debroy as well as that of a paper, prepared separately by Debroy and economist Kishore Desai. The decision to merge the Railway Budget with the General Budget was also seen as a significant step, as in previous years, political heavyweights, particularly regional satraps, had used this occasion to nurture their constituencies in a big way.
To recall, there was a time when presentation of Railways and General Budgets was not considered less than any national festival with the staff of Railways and Finance Ministries, exuberating in joy while distributing hard copies of budget. There used to be special official parties after successful presentation of the budgets in the ministries and in the Parliament.
However, in the name of ‘decolonising’ the budget, the NDA Government has, slowly and steadily, done away with all traditions and conventions associated with budget. Now, there is no separate Rail budget, no truckloads of hard copies, no halwa ceremony and not even a so popular Finance Minister to amuse the Parliamentarians as well the nation with eloquent, witty and jocular in-between shayari (poetry) like the one used by the then Railways Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav and other finance ministers of the yesteryears. In those days, the Finance Minister would read the entire speech in the Lok Sabha for many hours together unlike of today, when only selected and important budget highlights are read during the speech while the rest is treated as ‘deemed to be read’.
Undoubtedly, budget ceremony is turning out to more a ritual than a lively activity during the last few years. In its efforts to do away with the colonial practices, the Government has reduced the significance of this once celebratory and national occasion, which would involve one and all- poor or rich, urban or rural, literate or illiterate, men or women-to glue to their television sets to watch budget proceedings.
Now the occasion has not remained as popular and lively as it used to be, as most of the people prefer to read newspapers and take on to social media platforms to know budgetary updates, than to watching the Finance Minister on television to listen to lacklustre speech, mostly in English or ‘broken’ Hindi, much to the disappointment of the audiences. .
Not only the budget, the Government in the past six years of its rule been relentlessly trying to undo or rename most of the traditions, places and practices of the colonial era which the Congress government was carrying as national legacies. Be it the renaming of Yojana Aayog to Niti Aayog, 7 Race Course Road to 7 Lok Kalyan Marg, Allahabad to Prayaraj-the list is endless where Modi Government has tried to give a new look to the country by changing existing names and prevailing practices and customs towards achieving its motto of a ‘new India’.
However, it is worthwhile to mention here that mere changing of names or doing away with the years-old customs and practices in the name of colonialism would not work alone to usher in an era of financial growth and economic prosperity in the country, at this critical juncture when fiscal deficit is on the rise and GDP has nosedived.
It is hoped that the government will include all essential ingredients in the forthcoming budget to achieve high growth targets as well as to provide relief to common man, who is suffering a lot due to economic slowdown induced by pandemic and financial instability.

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