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Getting to know Pranab's Budget dream team

Last updated on: February 2, 2011 12:21 IST

Getting to know Pranab's Budget dream team

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Aditi Phadnis in New Delhi

The Budget for 2011-12 will be presented, as it usually is, on February 28. But a group of extremely unusual individuals will have been involved in creating the Budget.

Here's a look at who they really are.

Sushama Nath, IAS officer from the Madhya Pradesh cadre (1974 batch), at present expenditure secretary in the ministry of finance will take over as finance secretary, the first woman to do so.

She will also continue to be expenditure secretary.

Nath has been engaged in the Budget-making exercise for some years, but this is the first time she will be overseeing the entire ministry.

Nath can be pretty forbidding.

She is nobody's fool and can deliver the sharpest rebuke so pleasantly that you're left gasping for breath. In 2009, Nath's intervention at a Cabinet meeting made not just the minister, but the entire Cabinet, drop a proposal.

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Image: (Inset) Sushama Nath.

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The proposal was to provide pension to widows and persons with severe and multiple disabilities belonging to families below the poverty line was mooted by then Union rural development minister Raghuvansh Prasad Singh.

The original proposal was that the pension would be for life, irrespective of age. When the agenda came up for discussion, Nath, who was then expenditure secretary, objected strongly to it.

According to insiders, Nath argued that if there was no age cap, the scheme would become open ended and send the wrong message to society.

Even as the minister strongly supported the original proposal of providing Rs 200 a month to all BPL widows with matching state assistance, Nath continued to object to the proposal.

Singh produced a list of states that had already implemented such schemes. He said that Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Bihar were providing pension to widows for life.

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Image: Pranab Mukherjee giving final touches to Budget 2010-11 in New Delhi on February 25, 2010.
Photographs: B Mathur/Reuters
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But Nath stood her ground.

Her argument: Why should the government give pension to young widows?

The government should try to provide them employment opportunities and skill development assistance, instead of making them dependent on pension.

While the two argued over the proposal, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee didn't say a word, effectively allowing his ministry representative to register her point. No other minister spoke up in Singh's support.

Finally, the Cabinet conceded Nath had a point and adopted the revised plan. Now, widows from BPL families between the ages of 40 and 64 only get a monthly pension of Rs 200.

Beneath the hard carapace, Nath is warm, loyal and affectionate. Mumbai and Pune are where her heart lies.

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Image: A stockbroker watches a news channel screen, showing Indian Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee.
Photographs: Jayanta Shaw/Reuters
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In a ministry where Diwali gifts of Rolex watches are par for the course, Nath's demeanour puts off those who come bearing such gifts -- because she wears no jewellery.

This is the influence of her mother, who like hundreds of thousands of women all over India, took off whatever ornaments they were wearing and gave it all to the war effort in 1962.

The defence services probably don't know this -- which is why they hate Nath's guts when she points out gently but silkily every year that if they can't use the money the government gives them, they must return it.

She's too brave to bother about them.

If Nath's influence on the Budget is to get the government to do the right thing, Chief Economic Advisor Kaushik Basu's will be to say so pithily, elegantly and with verve. Basu is probably one of the few CEAs the Indian government has ever had to have produced an Economic Survey that is actually readable.

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Image: A flower vendor.
Photographs: Reuters
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But a thorough understanding of the Indian economy and polished prose is just one part of Basu's persona.

He reads Stieg Larsson (he's only read the first one of the Millennium trilogy and thoroughly enjoyed it) and is currently deeply involved with novels by James Church, featuring the sardonic Inspector O, who is high up in the bureaucratic hierarchy in North Korea and captures the landscape of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il with felicity, portraying the Korean people not as mindless hypnotised rabble, but sly and conniving (Church is obviously a pseudonym).

One of Basu's favourites is Ryszard Kapuoecinski, a Polish writer and journalist whose accounts of Iran and Africa had the world riveted and reporters sick to the heart with envy(parenthetically, when he finally returned to Poland, he had lived through 27 revolutions and coups, been jailed 40 times and survived four death sentences).

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Image: Kaushik Basu.

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Two of his favourite books are the autobiographies of Jean Jacques Rousseau (Social Contract) and Bertrand Russel.
Both, he says, because of the painful, gripping honesty with which they describe their life.

Basu is also an art aficionado.

He understands it and invests in it (his greatest prize is a Vaikuntam he bought years ago for a song, now worth lakhs).

For those who are not artists, his favourite colours are red and a deep, rich purple. He doesn't much care for blue -- except a certain kind of blue ('you need to do blue really well to carry it off').

For Secretary in the Department of Economic Affairs R Gopalan (Tamil Nadu cadre), banks have been an abiding passion for two years (he will be handling that portfolio along with the DEA for another two months to roll out everything he has plans to).

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Image: A shopkeeper counts notes inside his shop in Jammu. (Inset) R Gopalan.
Photographs: B Mathur/Reuters
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Gopalan is polite, but blunt: As the LIC Housing Finance staff found out to their dismay when the lid came off on its scam. Gopalan told the parliamentary standing committee the scam was no big deal and earned a reproof from CPI MP Gurudas Dasgupta.

But, as he says, one bad egg doesn't spoil the basket. Every day, Saturdays included, is at least 13 hours of work.

Sunil Mitra, revenue secretary, is probably one of those who think the right to information is second only to weapons of mass destruction. He will go to great lengths to uphold the opacity of the realm.

What will this team of extraordinary bureaucrats produce on 28 February, 2011? Hard to say, but certainly something that will go towards making India a better place. For God knows we need it!


Image: Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee.

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