Gaps in FM Nirmala Sitharaman's Budget 2020 team have experts worried

Topics Budget 2020 | Budget | Parliament

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s key Budget team for 2020 has gaps in key positions. As the Budget season of the government begins in earnest, the posts of joint secretary (Budget) and of expenditure secretary are being handled as additional charges by other officers. On Wednesday, Economic Affairs Secretary Atanu Chakraborty was given additional charge as expenditure secretary.  

What is surprising is that Revenue Secretary Ajay Bhushan Pandey, despite being senior to Chakraborty, was not given the additional charge once Expenditure Secretary Girish Chandra Murmu was elevated as Lieutenant Governor of Jammu & Kashmir. Pandey is from 1984 batch of IAS while Chakraborty is from the 1985 batch. Also, just a week ago, the officer next to Murmu, special secretary Pramod Kumar Das, who was tipped to take over as expenditure secretary was instead transferred to the ministry of minority affairs as secretary. 

In less than 20 days, the winter session of Parliament will begin where the finance ministry will present its second supplementary demand for grants, a top up of the annual Budget allocation made in July. The expenditure secretary is the points man for the finance minister in this exercise, which will be Chakraborty unless a replacement for him arrives by then. 

In preparations for this exercise, officers from respective ministries have already come up to North Block periodically with their report cards of money spent in the fiscal year and have offered projections of what they plan to spend in the next fiscal year. These meetings determine pretty much the expenditure budget of the government, which also includes the Railway budget, merged into it since 2017. 

The annual Budget will be tabled in Parliament within three months at the end of January. “It seems most difficult for a new officer to pick up the details at this stage and to be in control of the Budget process. A delay will make it an impossible task," said a former secretary from the ministry.  

It is going to be even more difficult this year as the next person to stand in the for the expenditure secretary, joint secretary (budget), too, is vacant, since Arvind Srivastava moved across the road to the Prime Minister’s Office in August. While the joint secretary (budget) is notionally under the department of economic affairs, in the Budget exercise, the officer in this post works in close conjunction with the expenditure department. Often officers from this post have later gone on to become expenditure secretaries.

Since Chakraborty continues to be department of economic affairs secretary he shall now have the advantage of both the larger expenditure department and the budget division in DEA reporting to him.

There are other senior-level vacancies in the North Block and these, too, could affect the Budget time table. This includes vacancy in the post of joint secretary (public finance-central I). 

While there have been episodes earlier where one secretary in the finance ministry has held additional charge, old hands could not recall instances where it has happened so close to the presentation of the annual Budget. Because of the uneven terms in which officers retire changes at secretary levels have happened close to Budget. But the switch among finance ministry officers have been made seamless in recent years since those have been announced well in time to offer the new person a chance to familiarise oneself with the department. 

For instance, current Election Commissioner Ashok Lavasa retired at the end of October 2017 to be replaced by Ajay Narayan Jha. But Jha’s appointment was announced a fortnight before. Jha served as officer on special duty till Lavasa’s term got over on October 31. Murmu came in as expenditure secretary with a similar lag. His appointment was announced in November 2018 and he took over after Jha retired after the presentation of Budget in January.

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