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Since 1st March, 1999
 
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Hawk eye on budget babus

New Delhi, Jan. 27: The cold red sandstone edifice in the left corner of Raisina Hill called North Block is lying under an unprecedented security cover.

Home to the finance ministry, North Block has been put under wraps by the government to keep corporate espionage at arm's length.

Usually, the building becomes out of bounds to visitors about a fortnight ahead of budget day ' February 28. This time, the security drill has been advanced to nearly one-and-a-half months ahead of the budget.

Visitors are being escorted by security personnel to the officer they wish to see. North Block officers have been instructed to ensure they do not stray from their rooms to any other part of the cavernous building.

Sensitive sections, which deal with taxation policies and tax number crunching, are always under armed guard at this time of the year.

An improved Internet security system is keeping watch on email use. Sources said all this is being done to keep the secrecy of a series of excise and customs duty changes to be undertaken by the government as part of tax reforms.

Last year, in the wake of the Telgi scam, the previous finance minister, Jaswant Singh, had brought in the Intelligence Bureau to vet all 1,000 officials involved in budget making, printing and distribution.

Old-timers said security is tighter this time. 'Corporate espionage has advanced and at this time of the year companies do try and ferret out budget details,' they added.

Despite some demystification of the budget-making process, the exercise remains a hush-hush affair. The sections in the finance ministry which undertake budget-related work are cordoned off from normal visitors and even government officials with valid passes from other wings are denied access to these offices.

All this security stems from the fear that speculators will make money with advance information on budget measures.

The government wants to lower customs and excise duties from the current peaks of 20 and 16 per cent, respectively, to about 15 and 14 per cent.

It will also come out with a road map of how even these will be reduced to levels prevailing in Asean countries ' about 10-12 per cent.

Peak customs duty is likely to be reduced by 20-25 per cent. At the same time, corresponding cuts in duties on raw materials and intermediate inputs are likely so that the rates on these are at least one-fourth to one-third lower than those on final products.

However, exact duty cuts or increases for individual items will be only known when the budget is revealed about a month later and it is this market-sensitive information that the government wants to protect.

It also intends to phase out the maze of tax exemptions, which again could influence trade in certain products, besides having an impact on share prices of firms dealing with them.

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