Lessons for Indian bureaucracy from Japan

Bureaucracy in India, a la PJ Thomas and Neera Yadav shenanigans, needs a complete overhaul.

By Bhaskar Parichha

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Published: Fri 17 Dec 2010, 11:03 PM

Last updated: Mon 22 May 2023, 12:42 PM

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been advocating, for umpteen numbers of times, transformation of the civil service in the country.

Come Civil Service Day (April 21), homily and sermons do surely make headlines, till one more bunch of terminology replaces the earlier ones. That the civil service in India has fallen into bad days needs no iteration. Once called the ‘steel frame’, it is no longer steely, neither has it had a frame. All that the bureaucracy has done to India in the past sixty years can be summed up by what Dale Dauten once said, rather sarcastically,‘ gave birth to itself and now expects maternity benefits.


Since 1989, the World Bank has been laying its emphasis on good governance and civil service reforms in the developing countries. The argument behind such reforms is that enlightened policy-making and implementation is not possible without building institutions such as civil service systems that are capable to take forward the development processes.

Civil services in India suffer from many ailments-the major malady being its politicisation. The selection, tenure and promotion processes are not insulated from politics. A case in point is the arbitrary selection of PJ Thomas to the coveted post of CVC. Asides the oft-quoted ‘nexus’ between the bureaucrat and the politician, the civil service in India is poorly motivated, under-skilled and ill-equipped to perform the required tasks. Civil servants are loyal to the individual politician rather to the state. Result? Personal gain, political patronage and corruption. Until recently, when the sixth pay commission recommended fatter pay packets for the civil servants, the babus were severely underpaid - thereby jettisoning the best talent to the corporate world. Even now emoluments and perks of civil servants don’t compare favourably with what the corporates pay - the only inspiring factor to choose civil service being the power and privilege a civil servant enjoys.


With the transformation of the Indian economy from mixed to a capitalist one and economic growth being the buzz word, reforming the structure of India’s civil service along the Japanese approach could be a way out. Not only the Japanese model is relevant to a developing country like India, it can act as a facilitator for economic growth through free enterprise. Similarities between Japan and India lay elsewhere, too. Japan was earlier an authoritarian command economy, only to become a democratic and market-oriented one, in course of decades.

If promoting rapid economic and social development is what is expected of the civil servants, Japan has amply demonstrated this during 1950-75, the decade known for a high growth trajectory. Industrially disposed and with a view to catching up with the West, Japan adopted an ideology of shared growth. Even, the Liberal Democratic Party which unquestionably propagated the principle of shared growth had twenty-five per cent of the ex-bureaucrats as its members.

Much as we see in India, today, Japanese policies used to be formulated in consultation and cooperation with the private sector, while making civil servants to be on familiar terms with the policies. In order to facilitate civil service-private sector cooperation in a competitive environment, what is therefore needed is, as the World Bank has prescribed, “competent, honest and realistically paid bureaucrats”.

The Japanese civil service operates within an institutional structure created and controlled by constitutional and regulatory law –much, again, similar to the civil services in India. But where it differs from India is the standards of entry into public service.

The National Personnel Authority (NPA) like our own UPSC conducts comprehensive qualifying examinations, but unlike the UPSC, is also responsible for compensation and disciplinary action. NPA’s non-political character enables it to ensure operational autonomy for the civil servants.

Japan has a unique recruitment process for the civil service.

The Class I recruits, known as ‘high fliers’, are expected to assume top positions in various ministries and agencies, while the Class II examination screens and selects middle-level civil servants, and Class III covering rest of the civil jobs. The competitive examinations held by NPA are unique in yet another way-applicants must have adequate training in good universities, where students are taken on tough admission criteria.

The Japanese system lays much emphasis on early recruitment and earlier retirement. Successful candidates for civil service are invariably in the early 20s while the retirement age never stretches beyond the mid-50s, making it more brawny and productive.

Competition is the fulcrum of Japanese civil service-from entry to exit. If promotions are seniority-based, competition is ruthless for the functional positions, some what similar to our joint and additional secretaries at the centre. Called section chiefs, all subsequent positions are modeled on a newspaper establishment –assistant bureau chief, bureau chief and administrative vice-minister.

Just as our bureaucrats never sit idle after retirement, Japanese, too, have the ‘amakudari’ system for post-retirement assignments which helps to cement close relationships between government and business firms. But there is always a strict check on bureaucratic expansion through the budget process. Similarly, administrative reforms are carried out periodically to cut the flab.

Discipline is key to Japanese bureaucracy and bureaucrats work diligently to acquire greater skills and expertise. Since any blemish on their records would lead to disqualification, the civil service is relatively free from corruption. Credibility and integrity is an important hallmark of Japanese bureaucracy. Much as an efficient civil service would largely depend on the political system, Japanese bureaucracy is a larger reflection of the political culture and society.

Unlike in India, the Japanese civil service is very sensitive to its clean image. Being ‘guardians of public interest’ the bureaucracy in Japan is not impervious. Whenever official misconduct is exposed in courts or the media the impact is felt across the board. Suffering from social consequences and denting of public image is least in the minds of a successful bureaucrat in Japan

Quantifiable yardsticks apart, what makes Japanese bureaucracy unique are the strength of parliamentary democracy. Inasmuch as the Japanese society has rich cultural and ethical moorings, the accountability of the civil servants is a foregone conclusion. But not in India!

Bhaskar Parichha is the editor of Orissa Bhaskar, an Oriya news daily
© Governance Now


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