On February 1, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley will present the National Democratic Alliance government’s third full Budget. The broad allocations to various sectors made by the Centre will go on to impact the country’s citizens deeply, as will the Budgets of state and local governments that will follow in the coming months.

However, while most commentary focuses on the Union Budget, there is little public information or analysis available on state and municipal Budgets. For instance, how much did the Punjab government set aside for the health sector 10 years ago and how does it compare to now? Or, how did Budget allocations change after new states such as Chhattisgarh and Uttarakhand were carved out? In the paucity of such data, these questions are difficult to answer and understand.

A new data initiative called Open Budgets India seeks to bridge this gap. The portal, launched in Delhi on January 27 by the non-profit research organisation Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability, will for the first time make available documents pertaining to Union Budgets from 1996-’97 onwards, state budgets of 26 states and Delhi for the last couple of years, and 23 municipal corporations – all on one website. All this data will be in machine-readable formats such as Comma Separated Value files and Excel spreadsheets.

Why this is important

Despite the government’s emphasis on its Digital India initiative, it mostly publishes Budget documents in hard copy. State Budget documents are even more inaccessible with only those for the current year available online for most states.

Goa, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur do not publish their Budgets online at all. Sikkim and Nagaland provide datasets in the form of spreadsheets that can be analysed on a computer.

“Less than half of all states and Union territories publish and archive budget documents of the last five years online in formats which cannot be used to be read by machines for comparison and analysis,” said Malini Chakravarty, additional coordinator (research), Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability.

So far, the portal has documents pertaining to the Union Budget and the budgets of Karnataka and Sikkim in Comma Separated Value formats, and those for 26 states in Portable Document Format. The datasets have been categorised into sectors, such as social, agriculture, health, power, energy and so on.

All documents and datasets are published under the Creative Commons licencing agreement, which means users can copy and distribute them freely after a simple attribution and at no cost.

Disclosure by states

Subrat Das, executive director of the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability, said the portal would make a stronger case for all government authorities to publish Budget documents online and in machine-readable formats as this would allow a wider number of people to access and analyse the data. “Public finance data is key to assessing any government’s work,” he said. “In India, because of the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act’s requirements, the Central government has brought in reasonably good transparency in Budget documents. But this deteriorates at the state level and the state governments are not making an effort towards proactive disclosure.”

He said the portal would seek to fill in this gap and, beginning with the Budget data of 23 municipal corporations, push governments to make district and panchayat-level Budget documents public as well.

Several other Budget documents on pensions, police and the Cabinet have also been published in machine-readable format for first time on the portal.

Sumandro Chattopadhyay, research director with the non-profit, said the website combined the best of Budget sector-specific practices and open data practices. “Open data policy is a cornerstone of digitisation and transparency and state governments should also come up with open data policies,” he said.