Today: Jun 17, 2024

‘Halwa’ ceremony returns as preparations of FM Sitharaman’s 5th Budget enters final stage

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New Delhi: The ‘halwa’ ceremony, an annual ritual that heralds the Union Budget, returned after a year’s break with Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Thursday stirring a ‘kadhai’ to mark the traditional event.

The ceremony is an annual ritual in which traditional dessert ‘halwa’ is prepared and served to officials and staff members of the finance ministry who were involved in the preparation of the Budget.

It is organised every year in the basement of North Block, which houses the ministry in the national capital, and is attended by the finance minister and other high-ranking officials.

The ceremony was curtailed last year in view of the COVID-19 pandemic and instead sweets were distributed to the core staff.  This year, the customary ‘halwa’ ceremony, performed every year before the ‘lock-in’ process of Budget preparation begins, coincided with Republic Day.

Besides Sitharaman, Minister of State for Finance Pankaj Chaudhary and Bhagwat K Karad and other senior officials including Finance Secretary T V Somanathan, Economic Affairs Secretary Ajay Seth, DIPAM Secretary Tuhin Kanta Pandey, and Revenue Secretary Sanjay Malhotra were present at the ceremony on Thursday, visuals of the event shared on the official twitter handle showed.

Chief Economic Advisor Anantha V. Nageswaran, Central Board for Direct taxes (CBDT) Chairman Nitin Gupta, Central Board for Indirect Taxes and Customs (CBIC) Chairman  Vivek Johri, Additional Secretary (Budget) Ashish Vachhani and other officers and staff of Ministry of Finance, involved in the Budget preparation and compilation process, were also present on the occasion.

Sitharaman is scheduled to present on February 1 her fifth straight budget for the fiscal year beginning April 1. Like the previous two, Union Budget 2023-24 will also be delivered in paperless form.

All the 14 Union Budget documents, including the Annual Financial Statement (commonly known as Budget), Demand for Grants (DG), Finance Bill etc. as prescribed by the Constitution, will be available on the “Union Budget Mobile App” for hassle-free access of Budget documents by Members of Parliament and the general public, the finance ministry said in a statement.

The app is bilingual (English & Hindi) and will be available on both Android and iOS platforms. It can also be downloaded from the Union Budget Web Portal www.indiabudget.gov.in, it said.

The Budget documents will be available on the app after the completion of the Budget speech by the finance minister in Parliament on February 1, 2023, it added.

As part of the ‘halwa’ ceremony, the finance minister also took a tour of the Budget Press and reviewed the preparations besides extending her best wishes to the officials concerned.

What is ‘halwa’ ceremony?  The ceremony is kind of a ‘send-off’ for finance ministry officials and staff involved with the preparation of the Union government’s annual financial statement.

They enter what is called a ‘lock-in’ period, during which they stay in the basement of North Block, cut off from the world outside with a view to maintaining the secrecy around the final budget document.

They will emerge only after the finance minister completes her Budget speech in the Lok Sabha on February 1.  It is considered a gesture of appreciation for those who have worked on the Budget.

The basement of North Block houses a printing press that was traditionally used to print budget documents for 40 years from 1980 to 2020. Thereafter, the budget went digital with bare minimum documents printed and the bulk distribution happening via mobile app or on the website.

Going digital also meant that the lock-in period has gotten shorter to just five days from the previous one that lasted up to two weeks.

“Like the previous two Union Budgets, Union Budget 2023-24 will also be delivered in paperless form. The Union Budget 2023-24 is to be presented on 1st February, 2023,” the finance ministry had tweeted on Wednesday.

“The Budget documents will be available on the ‘Union Budget Mobile App’ on both the Android and Apple OS platforms after the completion of the Budget Speech by the Finance Minister in Parliament on 1st February, 2023.”

What happens at the ‘halwa’ ceremony?  The finance minister stirs ‘halwa’ in a ‘kadhai’ (large metal pot or cauldron) to open the ceremony before serving the sweets to her colleagues.

Last year, however, it was curtailed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and the staff were served sweets instead.

Printing Press : All Budget-related documents are printed at North Block itself using a dedicated government press. Earlier, the documents were printed at Rashtrapati Bhavan, but this was shifted to a press on Minto Road in the national capital in 1950 after documents were leaked, and in 1980 to North Block.

The printing of several hundred copies of the voluminous budget documents was such an elaborate exercise that printing staff had to be quarantined inside the printing press in the basement of North Block for up to two weeks.

Tradition: While the Narendra Modi government has done away with several traditional aspects of the Budget since coming to power in 2014, such as merging the Rail Budget with the main Budget, bringing forward the date of presentation to February 1 instead of the last date of that month, and moving to a digital format – the ‘halwa’ ceremony as a tradition has survived.

Since coming to power, the Modi government has curtailed printing of Budget copies – initially culling copies distributed to journalists and outside analysts and then reducing those provided to MPs citing outbreak of pandemic.

Last year, the outbreak of the highly infectious Omicron variant brought more curbs.

The budget documents usually include finance minister’s speech in Parliament, highlights, annual financial statement, finance bill containing tax proposals, memorandum explaining the provisions in financial bill, macro economic framework statement, medium-term fiscal policy cum fiscal policy strategy statement.

Outcome framework for schemes, customs notification, implementation of previous budget announcements, receipt budget, expenditure budget and statement of budget estimates are also part of the Budget documents.

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, who in her maiden budget presentation in 2019 shunned the long-standing practice of carrying the speech and budget documents in a briefcase in favour of a ‘bahi-khata’ holding the papers, used a hand-held tablet to read her speech on the last two occasions.

Last year, she came to Parliament holding the gadget inside the red-coloured ‘bahi-khata’ cloth.