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The End February Suit-Boot Mela

Omkar Goswami


By the time you read this, 28 February 2003 will be history. Finance Minister  Jaswant Singh will have been requested by the Speaker of the Lok Sabha to present the Union Budget 2003-04 to Parliament. He will have stood up and read the budget speech in his deep voice. Unlike his predecessor, who sometimes wickedly needled the odd Opposition member, and therefore had to speak above the consequential din, Singh will be the epitome of aristocratic bearing. He will speak in a slow, measured tone, and occasionally use words and turn of phrase that are so pukka as to confuse at least half the House. He will not deign to raise his voice above the clamour of lesser bred mortals and, instead, wait for pin-drop silence before moving on to his next sentence. And he will emphatically prove the fiscal variation of the Chandrasekhar constant — namely, the length of the budget speech multiplied by the speed of delivery is always equal to one hour forty minutes, irrespective of who is the Finance Minister.


From an hour before 11 am, when Singh will have risen to present the Budget with the time honoured phrase, “Sir, I rise to present the Budget…” to long after he ends with another hallowed sentence, “Mr. Speaker, Sir, with these words, I commend the Budget to this august house”, most of corporate India will have ceased to work. One wouldn’t be wrong in estimating that over 90 per cent of the CEOs, and at least three-fourth of the senior management of India’s top 500 companies will either be glued to the TV, or appear in it, or answer a plethora of queries from a massive and geographically dispersed army of the fourth estate.


If you actually sat down and calculated the person days lost on hearing the Union Budget and in giving elaborate first cut opinions, you would arrive at a pretty staggering number. Here’s an estimate that can’t be very wrong. First, take into account an average of five hours for 90 per cent of 500 CEOs — two hours for the budget speech, one hour of chatting and anticipating before, an hour of commenting, exulting or groaning after, and an hour for travel and the like. That is 2,250 hours.  Second, assume that three-quarters of five senior executives in each of these top 500 companies spend three hours on the Budget — two hours for the speech plus an extra hour. That adds up to 5,625 hours. Finally, on a conservative basis, assume another 2,500 stock-brokers, traders, merchants, bankers, TV commentators and economists such as I and my ilk spend three hours on 28 February, from 11 am to 2 pm. That’s another 7,500 hours. Add the three up and you get 15,375 hours. Assuming an average work day of 14 hours, we will be looking at a minimum of 1,098 person days having been spent on the great event of 28 February 2003. That, dear readers, translates to over 3 person-years! Staggering, but true.


Now consider a similar annual event in the United States. The size of the US economy is $10.3 trillion dollars. The size of the Indian economy is $550 billion. In other words, the US economy is about 19 times the size of India’s. The US Federal budget for 2004 was presented by George Bush Jr. on 3 February 2003. I doubt whether anything remotely close to 1,098 person-days were lost among the US business community on account of that event.


This brings me to two hypotheses and a suggestion. The first hypothesis is that the amount of CEO, COO, CXO, economists and other sundry experts’ time spent directly and indirectly with media on Budget Day is inversely proportional to the extent of economic development. The more economically, commercially and competitively developed a nation, the less it gives importance to an annual event like the Budget Day. How many US businessmen care when the President delivers the Budget; and how many rush off to be in TV studios to speak of it?


My second hypothesis follows from the first. Less developed nations give great weight to fairs and festivals. The Union Budget is one such annual Indian mela. Just because the participants aren’t camel herders in Pushkar, but suited gents like us doesn’t make it any less of a mela. If you think about it carefully, it is as colourful and vibrant as any major fair in rural India. Only the clothes differ.


The suggestion is that the process needs to be completely de-mystified. Shorn of all secrecy and brief-case photo-op pomp, the Union Budget comprises three things. It is the annual accounts of the year that is coming to an end, and the proposed revenues and expenditure of that which follows. It is a statement of what taxes are to be raised and lowered, and what expenditures are to be incurred. And it is in some ways a statement of policy and intent. I see absolutely no reason why draft versions of these three not be placed on the net sometime in early February for people to read and comment on. Thereafter, a somewhat mildly edited version can be presented in Parliament as required by the Constitution.


That way, we could all sanely reconnoitre the last working day of February. And save 1,098 person-days to boot!        


 Published: The Business World, February 2003


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