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No day out for team budget
February, 12th 2010

The daily bill of fare at the North Block canteen can be as staid as the staff who frequent it. Except on Budget day usually February 28, two days earlier this year when theres just one dish on the lunch menu: Freedom.

After weeks of stifling and near-relentless toil to produce the most important policy document of the year, its not a lavish, nine-course spread that staff in the finance ministry are hungry for. Freedom is their most sought-after delicacy.

But around this time of the year, when the Budget announcement is still days away, freedom is a distant dream. Normally cheerful men and women turn into taciturn workaholics accessible to neither friend nor foe.

It is in November every year that the transformation begins. Government departments and ministries present their spending estimates and interest groups their laundry-list of demands.

Meanwhile, a Budget-making team takes shape in the finance ministry. Care is taken to ensure that only those who can be wedded to the job day and night are chosen.

You need huge physical and mental stamina to work in the Budget team. Decision making involves a number of meetings at various levels at odd hours, says TR Rustagi, a veteran of nine Budgets, who worked in the Tax Research Unit (TRU) of the Central Board of Excise and Customs, the body that administers indirect taxes.

While the TRU is concerned with indirect taxes, another unit called Tax Planning and Legislation busies itself on the direct taxes front.

In keeping with the Budgets code of secrecy, both units are walled off almost completely, with access restricted to only a few key officials. And every member of the Budget team comes under the intense, sometimes annoying, surveillance of the intelligence agencies.

If you want to go out on a date, perish the thought if you are on the Budget team. You can be sure that someones peeping into your intimate moment of togetherness, remarks a finance ministry official.

The pace intensifies in December, once all proposals and suggestions are organised and presented to the minister. After approval is obtained, the number-crunching begins: permutations and combinations are tried out to assess the financial implications of each set of plans.

Sometimes, the plans undergo changes and whole new sets of assumptions have to be made after days of work finalising a scenario. In between, there are innumerable meetings.

As the days and nights drag on, the pressure begins to tell at home and on the health.

It is difficult to manage at times. My husband would come back only by 3 am and leave again by 8 am. Children hardly get to see him, as he would be working on weekends as well, said the wife of an official who was part of the Budget team last year.

Burdened as they are by the code of secrecy, it is impossible to take work home. Many claim that they dont discuss work even with their spouses.

You feel terrible when you have to come to office on Sundays and bump into tourists clicking pictures and enjoying their holiday as you enter your 
dingy office in North Block, says a finance ministry official.

With so much time spent at work, eating meals cooked at home becomes a luxury. Those in the budget division say that after a few years of this unhealthy lifestyle, they have to cope with the problem of weight-gain and high cholesterol levels.

We had something we all called LDL (low density lipoprotein or bad cholesterol) counter where we would pick up all junk food, says an official who has been involved in Budget-making. None of these officials wished to be identified because of the intense secrecy surrounding the Budget-making process.

For all the disruption that the annual ritual causes, being part of the Budget-making process is regarded as a rewarding experience. After all, the Budget announcements that originate in the finance ministry go on to have an impact on the lives of every man, woman and child in India.

Thats also the time when officials get to interact closely with the finance minister and establish an enduring rapport with their boss. Yashwant Sinha and P Chidambaram are especially well-regarded for their intimate interest in almost every detail of the Budget.

Family and normal life does get disrupted, but the motivation levels are high and one really look forward to this experience, says D Swarup, a former expenditure secretary who was known as Mr Budget for shaping several of the annual policy documents.

The toughest ordeal, however, is faced by the five-dozen or so staff closely associated with the production of the Budget document. Responsible for translating, editing, proof-reading and printing the documents, these people are cloistered in the basement of the finance ministry for a whole week.

They are locked for 7-8 days without access to any type of communications. They live, eat and sleep in the bunkers inside the printing press, Mr Swarup says.

When they emerge from the isolation, the only thought they have is of freedom.

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