The Financial Express

An experiment in paperless budget!

An experiment in paperless budget!

It is a little bit surprising that only four documents related to the national budget have been made available in printed version this year. When the finance minister presented the budget for the fiscal year 2021-22 (FY22) at the national parliament on June 3, the set of budget-related documents in the paper included were: Annual Financial Statement, Budget in Brief, Budget Speech and Medium Term Macroeconomic Policy Statement (MTMPS). The documents are supplied in a folder to the Members of Parliament (MPs) and others including journalists.  It is a deviation from the tradition of providing some other essential documents like Combined Demand for Grants, Consolidated Fund Receipts, Detailed Budget, Public Account of the Republic, Annual Development Programme (ADP) and Bangladesh Economic Review. 

Except for the annual financial statement, there is no direct constitutional obligation for placing the other documents at the parliament. Article-87 of The Constitution of the People's Republic of Bangladesh makes it obligatory to place the annual financial statement 'of the estimated receipts and expenditure of the Government' for every financial year. Again, Article-91 makes 'an excess financial statement' obligatory, generally known as supplementary budget. Article-84 of the constitution mentions the necessity and function of the consolidated fund and the public account of the republic. Thus, these documents also seem obligatory for presenting at the parliament. Instead of printed materials, this year, the government makes the documents available only online.

Unlike in India, there is, however, no official announcement whether the move is a part of the government's plan to make the budget paperless gradually or a precautionary step due to Covid-19 pandemic. Against the backdrop of the pandemic, the Indian government did not print copies of the Union Budget 2021-22. It provided all the budget documents only through online channels, and lawmakers got an e-version of these documents. For the first time since independent India's first budget in November of 1947, Indian government did not print and release the budget documents physically.

To make e-version of the budget documents easily accessible, India also introduced several digital platforms and a mobile phone app.

It is not clear whether Bangladesh has tried to follow the Indian way of making the budget paperless partially. If that is the case, there is nothing wrong when the second wave of coronavirus is raging. However, there should be a clear announcement for the people in this regard. People have the right to know the reasons. The lack of a clear statement reflects the lack of transparency.

No doubt, searching for something within an electronic version of a document is more comfortable than the paper version. It is also much easier to find many microdata and detailed information on budgetary allocations in the soft version. Some extra work is necessary to get accustomed to the practice. For instance, if anyone wants to know about the funding for the Department of Immigration and Passports, he or she has to check the Combined Demand for Grant. By downloading the ministry or division-wise document, the PDF document for Security Service Division, he or she can browse in computer and find the allocation from the finance ministry website.

Moreover, there is no need to carry the printed copies all the time. Practically it is not possible to carry the voluminous documents. The booklets or the soft copies are easily accessible online from almost anywhere when required. 

The existing electronic version of the budget-related papers along with the embedded features are not entirely user-friendly in Bangladesh. Though users can download, search and print easily, or do zoom in or out, some more features like external links are necessary.

All these benefits of the online do not mean the necessity of physically printed budget documents has vanished. Paper versions are helpful to ensure the transparency of the budget and record keeping. Sometimes, it may not be possible to access the electronic versions, and only printed documents will work. Libraries and archives can preserve the documents systemically for future uses.

This year, the budget set also did not include the Bangladesh Economic Review, though not a budget-related core document like the Annual Financial Statement. Nevertheless, the review is necessary as it presents the country's overall economic and development scenario with a time series of various macroeconomic and development indicators. In the last year, there was an exception as the economic review for 2020 was missed.  As the finance ministry officials could not manage to collect and accumulate necessary data and statistics on time due to the pandemic, they could not prepare and release it in June. 

The economic review for 2020 was, however, released in October last year. "The review is placed before parliament every year during the budget session along with other budget documents. As a result of the changed situation due to the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic, there has been some delay in publishing 'Bangladesh Economic Review 2020'," said the FM in the preface of the publication. This year, according to the ministry officials, the document for 2021 will be released within this month. A step is also necessary to publish the paper version of other budget documents, so far available online, within this month.

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