ISLAMABAD - Huddled somewhere inside the budget documents, located somewhere in the middle of the budget speech, by which time most of the legislators (and at least one observer in the Press Gallery) were getting drowsy, was the revelation that the total number of judges on the Supreme Court would be raised from 16 to 29. From the budget's point of view, this bit of information was just about as important to mention as the fact that 100,000 additional Lady Health Workers will be employed in the upcoming year. Less important, infact; the LHW's would cost the exchequer more money. But from the point of view of what is going to transpire in the Capital in a day or two, this was the where-it's-at of the day's proceedings, not the actual budget speech itself. And it was the only bit of the budget speech that attracted some musings (not exactly ire) from the Opposition benches. That this was the most important bit of information revealed on the floor of the house yesterday serves as an index of the entire budget itself: this was a budget firmly in the shadow of the judicial crisis. This was not to be Naveed Qamar's budget in the first place; it was to be Ishaq Dar's. The judicial issue, therefore, skewed the budget process before it began in earnest. The public's expectations of the budget are also skewed. Though the government currently faces a terrible liquidity crunch, the people, not unreasonably, want relief. In the form of subsidies and tax cuts. How did the Finance Minister say the fiscal deficit was to be curtailed? By phasing out subsidies and increasing taxes. The subsidies are to take a cut of about 28 percent. And in revenue collection, though the dependence on indirect taxes was going to be shifted to direct taxes, it does not imply that the quantum of the former is going to decrease. The GST, in fact, is actually going to increase to 16 percent. A quick fix but one that will fuel yet more inflation. When Ishaq Dar had presented the economic charge sheet against the previous government, the sheet had hit the fan: he said that the fiscal deficit was going to reach a whopping 9 percent of the GDP. But he was going to try to curtail it to 6 percent. Way above the initial government target of 4 percent, but still ambitious given the circumstances. Qamar renews the pledge. How to do that? Surely increasing tax revenue is not going to be the only way to go about it. There is also that other end of the equation: expenditure. Apart from subsidies, the Minister says, there are also going to be expenditure cuts. Fiscal responsibility in government departments. All non development, non-salary expenditures are going to be frozen. But what about the all important defence budget? Well, this could be viewed however one wants to. The increase from Rs 251 billion to Rs 282 billion is actually a functional decrease, since there had been much inflation and devaluation of the rupee. Plus the defence budget is going to be disclosed in the parliament as well. For those whose vision is not khaki-filtered, the functional freeze was going to be inevitable for this particular year. And the bit of information presented would not actually be a close inspection of military accounts, just a cosmetic step; the detail of the defense budget, previously a one-liner, is going to be extended only in the number of words. As far as relief is concerned, the government is going to increase the salaries of government employees by 20 percent. Government pensions are also going to go up. As far as the bottom of the heap is concerned, the minimum wage is going to go up from Rs 4,600 per month to Rs 6,000. This would not mean much. The minimum wage is just a theoretical construct in our country, no one is actually going to go about paying it. As far as the bigger questions are concerned, inflation isn't about to go away anytime soon. Food inflation, however, is going to be determined by how well the government manages the year's crop cycles. By crucial points in the said cycle, perhaps the PML-N is back on board and the finance portfolio again goes to them. This does not mean to imply that they won't mess it up. Real caution is required there, specially in the midst of an international food crisis. Furthermore, if the Rs 170 billion subsidy on POL products is going, why not lower the taxes on petroleum products as well? Increase POL prices just as a means of transferring international prices to the consumers, not as a means of raising money for the kitty. As far as managing the power crisis is concerned, simply start increasing capacity. Sounds like a no-brainer? Tell that to the previous government, who didn't add a single MW to the national grid. (We did, they scream). As far as the impending water crisis is concerned, building dams is well and good but there should be much effort to curtail wastage. Canal lining and sedimentation management is going to go a long way in that. Half of MINFAL's PSDP is going to go to water conservation, a good sign. Aaloo-gosht simplicity is better than fireworks. Inflation, sustained provision of food, power and water. If these are reasonably kept under control, this budget is going to be remembered as a successful one.