The leather briefcase that the finance minister holds up for the cameras before he delivers the budget in parliament is one of the most curious hangovers from British colonial times.
But one tradition that gets little attention is the intense secrecy that surrounds the preparation of the budget.
Weeks before the finance bill is presented, finance ministry officials clam up, and refuse to speak in detail about the economy to the media. The basement of the Finance Ministry in the North Block of India’s central government secretariat, which has its own press to print the entire set of budget papers, is declared off limits to people not involved in the exercise a month before the big day.
The employees of the press and other staff and officers are locked in the bowels of North Block for the last seven days so that nothing is leaked. All contact with the outside world is cut off, their mobile phones are taken away and Internet connections shut down. Food is brought to them from outside, they sleep in bunk beds and the only people that are allowed to enter are doctors if someone falls sick.
“This is a part of the security measure put in place to ensure foolproof secrecy for the budget papers, and is part of a practice started in the pre-independence era,” the government’s manual on the budget process says.
One senior official told Reuters that the tradition of secrecy around a document that laid down taxes and spending for the year ahead, has now outlived the purpose it served in a rigidly planned economy.
“In the past every movement in customs and excise duties was watched closely as they could affect the market,” he said. “Today the architecture of the budget is in a different mould. Now it’s more of a statement of government spending and expenditures like other major economies.”
Another official was more blunt: “It’s ridiculous, in my view, to carry on with this tradition.”