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Do We Need Budgets?

Every year one man stands up in Parliament to try and address the collective dreams and aspirations of a billion people. For around 100 minutes India listens in rapt attention to over 12,000 words of prose to understand if the Government of the day has any cheer to offer. For 59 years, 29 men and one woman have tried to articulate their versions of a vision, of growth.

No other country has so much hope hinged on one speech. Indeed, no other politician in the world has the opportunity to make a billion people cry or sigh in relief, even break into raptures. One man seems to embody all the ills of recession or hyper growth, of enrichment or starvation. Neither is just. Why should P. Chidambaram, for instance, be responsible for price rise that is the result of a somnolent agriculture ministry? Or why indeed should one man be cheered for what is essentially the collective achievement of a billion people? What is the budget after all? It is primarily a statement of accounts on how much money is raised, how it is spent (though not necessarily in that order) and what the sarkar plans to do the following year. Instead, the budget, thanks to expectations, has become a hype-and-hoopla circus. Should a $800-billion economy wait for that one day for enabling policy? It is neither modern nor democratic, quite monarchic actually when juxtaposed with the hosannas that follow.

Why not make policy changes online, real-time and make the Budget a report card instead? Imagine a scenario where every year the prime minister introduces his Government's achievements and gets each of his ministers to speak-say for 15 minutes-on what was done and the ideas for the year ahead. This could be followed by a critique by a shadow government that the members of the Opposition could put up highlighting issues of mal governance. You could argue that Question Hour in Parliament is meant to deliver exactly this. But does it? India spends almost one lakh crore rupees in various schemes to alleviate poverty, to enable and empower people, but is the buck delivering the bang? Most assessments are a bit like the six blind men drawing the figure of the elephant. What we need is a transparent discourse and debate that is televised live for the people to be informed. And empowered. As it should be in a republic.

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MARCH 19, 2007

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