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In Budget Talk, End the Farce

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By P. Kharel

 

Perhaps the most predictable thing about an annual event that invariably attracts a lot of media attention entailing also public suspense is the estimated annual budget presentation by the finance minister of the day at a joint session of parliament.

I have been following budget presentations since the early 1970s. After joining full time journalism in 1973, doing so has been a professional habit. At The Rising Nepal, where I spent more than 22 years, budget presentation day was a hectic and demanding day for us reporters and the news desk. Leaving the shop would generally mean 4 O’clock in the morning.

Those were the times until the mid-1990s when the national news agency, RSS, used to circulate its different segments of bulletins at various times of the day in cyclostyled copies. The English copies were almost invariably completed at least an hour later than their Nepali counterparts, much to the envy of The Rising Nepal editorial department. For our colleagues at the Gorkhapatra could call it a day ahead of us.

A couple of times, the Finance Ministry could not provide its translated copies in English on time, and this made our job harder. In 1976, Jan Sharma, who later joined what to him was a greener pasture, RSS, and I had to work together for translating the material we required for coverage, taking a space of no less than one and a half pages of the newspaper.

PREDICTABLY BORING: In the Panchayat years, critical comments on the budget were carried in private newspapers whose stand was to be critical of the government, whatever the merit of the issue. At times, two-thirds of their story was written before the budget speech was over! Others made lusty praises of the budget speech.

Since 1990, another practice is a feature with predictable stale quality. While the ruling side hails the budget estimates to the skies, those cooling their heels in the opposition seats condemn it to portray the government as incompetent. The rulers claim it to be strewn with special features not recorded previously, and the opposition uses all means and words to dismiss it as not meeting the people’s aspirations in any way. This is supposed to be their political “dharma”!

Had a Nepali Congress government presented the budget estimates, read out by Dr. Yubaraj on May 28, Nepali Congress members would, predictably, have hailed it as a budget appropriate for the 21st century. On the other hand, had Khatiwada presented a similar budget as a Congress minister, the Oli-led Nepal Communist Party would have downgraded with the choicest words.

An NC MP, Minendra Rijal found the new budget as confined “day dreaming”.  Another NC member dismissed it as “a Pegasus in slogan and a tortoise pace” in fact. Remarks by Province No. 4’s Chief Minister Prithvi Subba, of the ruling Nepal Communist Party, raised eyebrows from others. He termed Khatiwada’s work as “Panchayat era budget”, as it did not allocate the budget for his province to the volume Subba would have liked. The opposition charges that the budget contradicts the white paper Khatiwada issued soon after his appointment have some valid points. It has also drawn criticisms for not living up to the election manifestos of CPN (UML) and Maoist Centre, which united as a single organisation.

POLAIRISED PRESS: As was the case during the 1951-60 decade of multiparty democracy and the partyless years, a large section of the media in Nepal is divided on ideological lines. Those affiliated with the ruling partners sing a script serving the government’s cause. Others in the ideologically opposition camp invariably unleash a tirade that in many democracies would book their scribes on various charges of impropriety, mostly on grounds of intentional malice or libel.

Politically partisan media follow what their parties order them to do in a country where there are more party affiliated journalists than independent ones. They toe the lines directed by their publicity departments. They and their mentors did “mission” journalism in the past for the “cause of democracy”; now they continue with the practice in the name of ensuring that the “infant loktantra” is nursed to maturity. Similar is the case with civil society leaders posing as independents, including human rights-wallahs, lawyers and such other manifestations.

So back to budget speech and discussions and wrap up by the finance minister. However valid the opposition’s suggestions might be, no government admits error. Likewise, the opposition does not bother to appreciate even budget features widely praised in the public. It takes much courage to admit that the rival party’s programme might have a positive point. It needs greater courage to admit one’s own failure.

The tiresome exercise of reading out the budget speech verbatim should be dispensed with altogether. The finance minister could give a brief highlight about his proposal and move a resolution: “Hon’ble Speaker, I propose that this document of budget estimates be considered as having been read.”

The Hon’ble members of parliament can then go home and take all the time to go through the document in accordance with their capacity for a long read, equal strength to digest and analyse the same for a perceive presentation of their views on the document, whether from the ruling side or those from the opposition.

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