Security officials present inside North Block were treated to a “rare” halwa on 19 February, during the traditional “halwa ceremony” to mark the commencement of the printing of the Union Budget document. In the past, these officers never participated in the halwa ceremony because of security reasons, primarily to stop any possible leaks from the Budget, which was presented in Parliament on Monday. An exception was made this time after ministry officials enjoyed their share of the dessert. Budget preparation is a secret and exhaustive government process as a leak can have immediate and possibly negative effects on the stock markets.
The halwa ceremony is a long-standing tradition and a last mile preparation for the Budget, a process that accelerates after months of hard work behind the closed doors of a quarantined North Block. The ceremony does not involve any kind of puja or prayer, but just the distribution of halwa to mark the printing of the document. The halwa, made using semolina and sugar, is prepared in a large vessel for at least 100 Ministry of Finance officials, most of whom are volunteers. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and Minister of State Jayant Sinha, after tasting the halwa, served the sweet, prepared in excess of at least 30 kg, to over a hundred ministry and security officials, themselves.
After the halwa ceremony, the officials who are part of the Budget preparation process descend into the basement of North Block, which holds the highly secure government press, to start printing thousands of copies of the voluminous Union Budget and Finance Bill. The first three Budgets were printed in the Rashtrapati Bhawan. But after the Budget document got leaked in 1950, the printing venue was shifted to a government press on Minto Road in Delhi. In 1980, the printing press was shifted to the North Block basement and has stayed there ever since. The press is fully air-conditioned, with modern printing machines, safety equipment, and a 24-hour service of food, tea and coffee.
North Block has the highest security detail during the period of Budget printing. This year, the area was quarantined from 5 January onwards until the presentation of the Budget. The Intelligence Bureau, Delhi Police and CISF take over the security of the area. No outsiders are allowed entry into the North Block and no official is allowed to have any appointments in the Finance Ministry. Officials who are part of the Budget preparation are closely monitored by the IB. As per practice, after the halwa ceremony, the officers stay “locked” inside the press until the time the Finance Minister presents the Budget. Only the ministers and a few senior bureaucrats including the Finance Secretary and the Chief Economic Advisor are allowed to leave the premises in the presence of heavy security. The officers are not allowed to contact anyone by any means, except in cases of emergency. A solitary phone line with incoming service is their only contact with the outside world during this time. This phone line is constantly monitored by the IB. Doctors and paramedics are stationed inside the press, in case anyone needs medical attention. Powerful jammers are installed to block all cellular, radio and broadband signals. The documents are guarded so closely that employees cannot even talk to their families. In case they do, they have to do so in the presence of IB. These officers, who eat and sleep in the basement for 10 days, come over ground only after the Budget is presented. The FM’s speech and taxation details are among the most guarded documents. The speech is either written by the FM, or with the help of the Chief Economic Advisor and the FM’s office.
The “blue sheet” is the most guarded document among all the Budget papers. It contains key figures of the Budget, which are constantly updated. It also forms the foundation of the intricate calculations that drive the entire economic planning process. Only one officer in the ministry, the Joint Secretary (Budget Division) is entrusted with the document. This officer does not allow even the Finance Minister to take the blue sheet outside North Block. Only a handful of ministry officers are allowed access to this crucial document.
A TOUCH OF MAHOGANY
The most anticipated moment on Budget Day is the Finance Minister arriving in Parliament with his mahogany leather briefcase, holding the Budget speech and key Budget documents. Traditionally, the briefcase, which is also called the “budget box”, is handed down from Finance Minister to Finance Minister until it is worn out and not fit for use. However, this old British tradition is no longer followed religiously.
BUDGET DAY BUSTLE
Budget Day is generally long and exhausting for all Finance Ministry officials. The Finance Minister leaves North Block with the Budget document to reach Rashtrapati Bhawan, where he briefs the President of the Budget’s details. Thereafter, the minister proceeds to Parliament, where he meets the Prime Minister and addresses him and the Union Cabinet about the Budget’s provisions, allocations and schemes. After this, the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister leave for the Lok Sabha, where the latter presents the Budget.