Though the government announces the Union Budget for the common citizens of the country, its nitty-gritty continues to elude them even after six decades since the first post-Independence budget.
To most, it’s still a financial jugglery of figures due to inaccessibility to data in an easy and understandable format.
In an attempt to make the understanding of budget documents less tedious, comprehensible, transparent and accessible in all details to the common man, the Delhi-based think tank — the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability (CBGA) — has developed an open data portal on Budgets in India — www.openbudgetsindia.org.
“Access to budget documents — whether Union Budget or state budgets — for the common man is not only difficult but tedious. As there has been a strong public demand to open up budget data, CBGA has developed this portal in association with six other expert organisations. It’s an uphill task for a large number of organisations working in different fields to access relevant information related to government budgets and accounts of states. Out of 29 states, three – Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Goa — haven’t yet uploaded their complete budget documents online. The primary focus of this beta version of the portal is to present budget data in machine readable format instead of just PDFs,” said executive director, CBGA, Subrat Das, while introducing the project on Friday.
What the portal offers?
i) Budget data will be available in machine readable formats – CSVs and MS-Excel instead of only PDFs.
ii) Data and information on Union Budget, State Budgets and Budgets of several Municipal Corporations in accessible and open formats.
iii) Visualisations (Infographics) based on Budget data for analytical study.
iv) Basics of the budget – concepts, processes and documents.
v) Work towards greater transparency.
“The portal provides budget information in three tiers — union, state and municipal corporation budgets. It had been extremely difficult to get machine readable document from municipal corporations. In many cases, even after using RTI to get access to budget documents, we were not given the latest ones. Among state budgets, Sikkim is the only one that provides complete budget documents online in Excel format, whereas the rest of the states provide in PDF format. The idea behind the portal is to provide comparative picture of states on receipts, expenditures, etc through budgets,” said Malini Chakravarty, additional coordinator (research) CBGA.
Accessing Budget documents: Bottlenecks
i) In many state budgets, complete documents are either not available or if available, it’s only in PDF format.
ii) Many state budgets drafted in vernacular language lack machine readable format. So, it becomes difficult to decipher the data.
iii) Online presence of state budgets is limited to only three to four years. Comparison for analysis becomes difficult.
iv) There is hardly any online presence of municipal corporation budgets.
v)Sourcing of data – a cumbersome task.
vi)Immensely difficult to get even hard copy of municipal corporations’ budget documents.
vii) Government’s lack of understanding of the online medium.
viii) There is no single platform to access budget documents of the Centre and the states.
ix) Lack of standards and inconsistent format.
The CBGA feels that citizens don’t get an inside picture of the announcements made in budgets either due to unavailability of complete budget documents online or unavailability in the right format. It was also felt that governments generally do not share data readily.
Amitabh Behar, executive director, National Foundation for India, said that by plugging these gaps, transparency in budgets could be achieved. “We want that even a 12th standard pass student or a plumber, who’s literate, to be able to understand and use data by using this portal. The trust should be on how effectively complex data can be used not just for academic papers and research but by the common man and how analysis of these can help in telling stories effectively,” he added.
A panel discussion on opening up access to budget data revealed that among the states that make their budget documents available online, only half provide the information for the previous five years or more. The rest provide complete state budgets online only for the previous one or two years. This does not facilitate in discerning trends over the years.
“A lot of hard work must have gone into developing this project, as Budget preparation itself is a humongous exercise. Besides, experts, the volunteers need to be recognized, as they must have contributed in a big way in developing this excellent portal. I’m optimistic about this project,” emphasised member, Expenditure Management Commission and former Finance Secretary, Sumit Bose.
“However, I feel that there’s no deliberate attempt by state governments, barring exceptions, not to put machine readable documents online. Probably, they never felt the need or it simply didn’t occur. In the next stage, the CBGA needs to tell state governments about their requirement. At present, every state would be interested in knowing what the other state is doing, what kind of allocations they have made in a particular sector. After the Budget, CBGA should sit with Budget department, secretary concerned and their counterparts in states to have a detailed discussion on how to move ahead,” advised Bose, who was also Secretary in the Thirteenth Finance Commission.
Prescribing a set of remedies to strengthen the demand side of the portal, deputy Comptroller and Auditor General, K Ganga said, “Transparency can only be achieved once the common man, who’s outside of academics and governance understands budget data and use it. Things are done by keeping only the experts in mind. Besides, communication channel with every stakeholder be kept open even through vernacular medium; ensure that people can access data in various kinds of devices; create an environment by encouraging people to provide data and pester the government to share data and information.”
On behalf of budget practitioners, director, Accountability Initiative at Centre for Policy Research, Yamini Aiyar added, “Availability of data on the portal will help in cross verifying information and the status of progress. Budget practitioners have to proactively engage with planners, stakeholders, local and panchayat leaders. CBGA should put as much data possible in public domain, so that practitioners, NGOs and people can use it.”
Stating access to data as today’s biggest hurdle, research director, Centre for Internet and Society, Sumandro Chattapadhyay added, “In the next 10 years, the development sector in India and world will witness data-driven discussion and monitoring. Since November 8, the volume of data-based discussion on demonetisation we’ve seen is unprecedented. It reflects the importance of open data.”
The partners in CBGA’s portal project are Budget Analysis Rajasthan Centre (BARC), Centre for Internet and Society (CIS), DataKind, DataMeet, National Foundation for India (NFI), National Centre for Advocacy Studies (NCAS) and Pathey Budget Centre.