Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and other finance ministry officials have reached the last leg of pre-Budget consultations. After meeting representatives from various stakeholders, including the agriculture sector, industry, trade unions, non-government organisations and economists, Mukherjee and his team will conclude the pre-Budget talks with meeting regulators on Friday.
Once all the suggestions are in, the key challenge for the finance ministers team will be to come up with a Budget that addresses the problems of high inflation without compromising on growth, stay on the path of fiscal consolidation and formulate tax proposals keeping in mind the introduction of the Direct Taxes Code (DTC) and the Goods and Services Tax (GST) next year.
Mukherjee has a relatively experienced team this time, compared to last years Budget, when both the revenue secretary and the chief economic advisor were new. Most of the officials at senior positions in the finance ministry had worked on last years Budget and are expected to provide continuity in the upcoming one. However, this will be the last Budget for three secretaries in the finance ministry.
Finance Secretary Ashok Chawla, who handled last years Budget and took many policy decisions during the financial crises, may not be in the ministry for the entire Budget process. He is due to retire on January 31 and there is no official word on an extension to the veteran Gujarat-cadre IAS officer so far. If he does not get an extension, Budget 2011-12 will have imprints of two finance secretaries.
The situation is similar to last year when P V Bhide was retiring as revenue secretary in January. The government decided against an extension to Bhide and brought Sunil Mitra to be the revenue secretary. Mitras post in the disinvestment department was filled by Sumit Bose, who was a secretary in the Thirteenth Finance Commission.
After Chawla, Expenditure Secretary Sushma Nath is the senior-most official in the finance ministry, but her retirement is due in March. Commerce Secretary Rahul Khullar is tipped to be the next finance secretary, but he cannot move to North Block as the finance secretary before Nath retires. As the Budget process goes on till May, the possibility of a two-month extension to Nath is not ruled out.
Mitra, who had his first brush with the Budget last year, is due to retire in June. The Bengal-cadre IAS officer came to head the revenue department in February last year and worked on the Budget only towards the end. Budget 2011-12, to be tabled on the last working day of February, will be his first full-fledged Budget.
His successor in the disinvestment department, Sumit Bose, also got little chance to work on last years Budget, as he joined in February. Bose, however, may get more opportunities to work on the Budget, as his retirement age is three years away. Though the disinvestment secretary, strictly speaking, is not part of the core Budget team, his inputs are crucial because a portion of the governments capital expenditure on social sector programmes is to be met from disinvestment proceeds.
Chief Economic Advisor Kaushik Basu, a professor at Cornell University in the US, joined the finance ministry in December 2009 and got a fair chance to work on last years Budget, but this time he has been involved in the process since the beginning. Besides drafting parts of the finance ministers Budget speech, he will oversee preparation of the Economic Survey, which is presented before the Budget.
The two boards of the revenue department Central Board of Excise and Customs (CBEC) and Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) got their new heads last month, but they are not new to the Budget-making process. CBEC Chairman S Dutt Majumder and CBDT Chairman Sudhir Chandra were members on the boards of their respective departments and worked in that capacity on last years Budget.
Y G Parande, member (Budget); Shaktikanta Das, joint secretary (Budget); and other officials in the Budget Division of the Department Of Economic Affairs will provide the useful link between all the related departments and ministries.
In the Tax Research Unit, Joint Secretary Vivek Johri will provide continuity, while another joint secretary, V K Garg, who replaced Gautam Bhattacharya recently, will be a new member in the team. Their inputs will not only be required for doing the tax calculus but also for ensuring that the Budget proposals take into consideration a smooth introduction of GST.
On the direct tax side, the ground work will be done by Joint Secretaries Ashutosh Dixit and Sunil Gupta, who were there for last years Budget also. Direct tax proposals in the forthcoming Budget are also expected to be in line with changes that are being planned as part of DTC.