Thiruvananthapuram: Budget is a highly confidential document until the moment the finance minister reads it out in the legislative assembly. Yet the maiden budget of the first government of Kerala itself was leaked to the media.
The year was 1957. Details of the budget was published on a Malayalam daily on the day of the presentation. Editor K. Balakrishnan, reporter G. Venugopal and Kainikara Padmanabha Pillai, an employee of the government press where the budget was printed, were arrested for the leak, but the Kerala High Court let them off the hook with a nominal penalty.
Padmanabha Pillai, a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party, later said that he leaked the confidential budget to taint the government run by the communists.
Pillai, who worked in the composing section of the press, took a copy of the budget document waiting to be proof-read and walked out. He could evade frisking by the security guards thanks to his stature as a union leader.
The incident prompted the then speaker to give a ruling that established that the budget’s ownership rests with the assembly.
A budget leak was earlier considered a breach of privilege, former Lok Sabha secretary general P.D.T. Achary said. The members of the House would give breach of privileges notices to the speaker targeting the finance minister. However, speakers no longer view a leak as a breach of privilege.
At the most, a leak could invite legal action under the Official Secrecy Act. The circumstances leading up to the leak could be probed and the official responsible may be taken to task in accordance with the law.
The finance minister can be held answerable if the origin of the leak is traced to his office. The House can admonish the minister through a resolution. The minister can put an end to the episode by giving an apology before the House.
Hugh Dalton, the chancellor of the exchequer in the Clement Attlee ministry, had to resign after an inadvertent guffaw led to a leak of his budget. Sharing a drink with a journalist friend on the eve of the budget, Dalton jokingly said that the booze would be costlier from the next day. The tip found its way to the newspaper.
Back home, union finance minister C.D. Deshmukh’s budget was also leaked out.
Shrouded in secrecy
State budgets always follow the union budget but the work on the financial statement starts at least three months early. Each department is asked to submit their recommendations to be included in the budget, including expected expenses and plans for any new projects.
This time, the government took the process online.
The second phase of budget preparation is an interaction with the top bureaucrats. Finance minister T.M. Thomas Isaac kicked off the process in the seaside Inspection Bungalow at Vizhinjam in the state capital.
He would analyze data and go through the suggestions and ask for any more details. The social media-savvy minister also considered recommendations obtained through online platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook.
Another round of discussions followed, this time with businessmen, consumer associations, farmers’ group and representatives of all sectors of the economy.
The interaction went on for two days. Groups were also allowed to send their suggestions in writing.
The team prepared the details of expected revenue and expenditure. A final round of talks was held last week, attended by a team cherry-picked from the offices of the finance minister and the finance secretary. Each project was finalized and funds allotted to it. The budget document received the stamp of approval from the cabinet last week.
The minister started preparing the budget speech on February 27. Two staff members helped him obtain data as and when needed. The minister and his small team were in constant touch with the finance department in preparation for the budget. The work schedule went late into night every day.
The speech was finalized only on Thursday, on the eve of the budget presentation in the Legislation Assembly.
The finance minister read out the statement to chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan before sending the confidential document to the government press.
The printed document reached the assembly in a sealed cover on Friday morning. The employees of the press involved in the printing of the budget documents could leave their workplace only after the minister wound up his speech to ensure its secrecy.