Currently, the Indian Army is facing a shortage of 11,238 officers, a huge 24.1 percent of its authorization of 46,615 officers. The other two services face similar problems. The situation seems to be worsening as is evident from the fact that only 172 of the available 300 seats have been taken up for entry into the National Defence Academy (NDA) recently.
The current state of affairs is certainly a cause for major concern both for the government and the services. A number of studies have been carried out to identify reasons for under-subscription of the available vacancies. Unfortunately, most studies have concentrated on establishing linkages between tough service life and inadequate financial packages. They have concluded that the services are unable to attract suitable youth due to better emoluments offered by the corporate world. If these studies are to be believed, a massive hike in pay packets would solve the problem and attract youth in droves.
Better emoluments to the service officers are certainly justified, but the real reasons for the insufficient intake lie elsewhere. Preconceived peripheral issues should not be permitted to obscure an objective analysis of the issues involved. Corrective steps can be initiated only after the root-causes are diagnosed diligently. This article focuses on the issues related to entry into the NDA as that is the primary mode of induction of officers.Two points are commonly made to explain lesser intake—first, insufficient numbers of candidates apply for entry into the NDA and, secondly, their standard is not up to the mark. To begin with, we must get our facts rights. Response to the NDA is not poor at all. (See accompanying box for details of applicants for the five year period 2002–2007. On an average 94221 candidates appeared for each NDA course.)
431 candidates applied for each NDA vacancy, whereas the corresponding number for the combined civil services was only 319. Therefore, it is totally incorrect to aver that the response to the NDA is inadequate.
Applicant to Post Ratio (APR) is a standard index used to indicate the number of candidates aspiring for the available posts through respective examinations. As shown in the box on Applicant to Post Ratio, 431 candidates applied for each NDA vacancy, whereas the corresponding number for the combined civil services was only 319. Therefore, it is totally incorrect to aver that the response to the NDA is inadequate.
As regards the standard of the candidates, it is inconceivable that the services can not get the required material when there are 431 candidates for each vacancy. Either the quality of Indian youth is abysmally poor or there are flaws in our selection system. One refuses to believe the first. Adequate number of bright and above average candidates still aspire for a career in the services. It is unfair to brand them unfit or riff-raff (as some senior officers tend to call them). Apparently, it is our selection system that warrants a re-look.
Infirmities of the Selection Process
After clearing the written examination conducted by the Union Public Service Commission, candidates are screened by the Services Selection Boards (SSB) based on three-pronged testing system—interview, tests of psychology and group testing. The three assessors use independent techniques to test individuals. During the final conference they exchange information to define the personality of the candidate.
The whole selection process is negative in approach and is directed towards finding limitations/angularities in a candidates personality. Positives are ignored and negatives are highlighted.
The interview is conducted by President/Deputy President of SSB, with the objective of probing for ‘clues to behaviour’ through adroit suggestions, comments and questioning to obtain inputs regarding strengths and shortcomings of the candidate. Psychological assessment is based on projective tests. These include intelligence test, thematic appreciation test, word association test, situation reaction test and self-description. Group testing is based on the premise that a group is a man’s most natural environment and his behaviour in a group will be his natural behaviour.
Some of the major areas of concern of the SSB process have been discussed in the following sections.
Proclivity for Rejection
The whole selection process is negative in approach and is directed towards finding limitations/angularities in a candidate’s personality. Positives are ignored and negatives are highlighted. As no human is perfect, most candidates get rejected for one reason or the other. Inconsistent/incomplete evidence or inconclusive assessment also provides adequate justification for rejecting a candidate. Even during the final conference, all three assessors give out limitations that they have noticed in a candidate. The whole exercise is directed towards finding enough reasons to reject a candidate rather than carrying out an appraisal of his good traits for selection.
Some assessors suffer from ‘error of contagious bias’, in that they get biased by their own likes and dislikes and tend to judge candidates’ traits by their own standards, and by comparison, without appreciating that attitudes and ethics have changed with time. This is normally referred to as ‘error due to false assumptions’. What was considered unethical not so long ago may have come to be accepted in the society as a fact of life now.It is an established fact that an assessor makes up to 10 value judgments on a candidate in the first 30 seconds of an interaction. It influences further course of the assessment unless an assessor exercises due caution. Unfortunately, many assessors tend to develop an attitude of their own infallibility. They believe that they have the expertise to judge suitability of a candidate in a few minutes. Such assessors tend to make up their mind at the outset, and the subsequent assessment gets reduced to a mere formality devoid of purpose and objectivity. This is the single most important reason for distortions in the whole process.
Attitude of Playing Safe
Most assessors suffer from the ‘error of central tendency’ syndrome, in that, they hesitate to give clear-cut assessments and keep most candidates as border-liners. Candidates not falling in the category of Adequate or Inadequate zones are considered border-liners. This is primarily due to their lack of confidence in their own assessment. They fear that their assessment may be at variance with the assessment of other two assessors and that they may stand out as the ‘odd-man’. Therefore, they prefer to keep a candidate as a border-liner and leave final decision making to the final conference which is attended by all the three assessors interviewers, group testing officer and psychologist. During the conference, they watch the trend of discussion and generally go with the majority opinion.
Border-liners form a whopping 36 percent of all candidates. It implies that the whole selection process is unable to determine suitability of 36 percent candidates. It is certainly a cause for concern as it reflects weaknesses of the assessors and their inability to perceive the required qualities with accuracy.
Inadequate Importance to Potentiality and Trainability
Potentiality refers to the qualities which may not be fully developed at the time of selection but the candidate shows adequate potential for their subsequent development with facilitating environment and training. On the other hand, trainability is ability to assimilate training and acquire/develop required quality traits. Although the basic attitudes do not change appreciably, there are a number of developable qualities like power of expression, emotional development, width of interest, drive and insight.
The present day candidates come from varied background and may not have had the opportunity to be exposed to many facilities, whereas most candidates came from public schools earlier. Therefore, potentiality and trainability have become important factors to be considered while assessing candidates. As gauging of potentiality and trainability is much more difficult than to determine current standards, there is a need to carry out an appraisal of the selection process and impart required training to the selection staff.
Raising of Entry Qualifications and Age
Undoubtedly, the services would like to attract the brightest youth, as used to be the case till the 1980s. Unfortunately, in a blunder of monumental proportions, the services lost the ‘first pick advantage’ that it had enjoyed up till then. Earlier, Class X was the minimum qualification for entry to the NDA and the age group was 15 to 17 years. Candidates could appear for the written test while preparing for their Class X examination, with their candidature remaining provisional subject to their passing Class X. Thus, the average age of candidates at the time of joining the NDA used to be between 16 to 16½ years and they used to get their commission at around 20 years of age after four years of training.
With a view to award BA/BSc degrees at the end of their training at the NDA, entry qualification was raised to 10+2 and consequently, the age group rose to 16½ to 19 years. Now, the average age of cadets at the time of entry into the NDA is over 18 years and they get their commission at the age of over 22 years. A comparison of the old and the new systems reveals interesting aspects.
As entry qualification was pitched at Class X, the NDA was the first career option available to the youth. Invariably, it attracted the best talent. Parents encouraged their sons to opt for the NDA and be settled in a career rather than remain uncertain as regards entry into other streams. Youth at the age of 15-17 years were extremely motivated with idealism and nationalism ruling high. Their mental and physical robustness could be easily developed. An officer commissioned at the age of 20 years served the defence forces for a much longer period than an officer commissioned at 22-23 years, as the retirement age remains fixed. It means that for the same quantum of resources invested in training an officer, the services got better returns by way of longer service span. Officers commissioned at the age of 20 helped keep the age profile of the services young at the crucial levels of platoon, company and battalion commanders.
On the other hand, the only advantage accruing from higher qualification and age is that the cadets get graduation degrees at the end of their NDA training. A graduation degree cannot be the sole justification for forfeiting opportunity to pick the best youth for the services. With enhanced entry age, students have multiple career options, the services being one of them.
Most assessors suffer from the error of central tendency syndrome, in that, they hesitate to give clear-cut assessments and keep most candidates as border-liners.
Even though a number of factors influence trainability, it is primarily a function of age. It is much easier to mould and train adolescents rather than grown up youth and develop their potential due to their impressionable age. It implies that in the case of a younger age group, appropriate weightage can be assigned to potential and trainability. As can be seen in the accompanying box, it is best to induct cadets during their early adolescence and train them as per the requirements of the services through the period of middle adolescence, thereby ensuring that they get commission during late adolescence period with fully rounded personality. This was the advantage the services enjoyed earlier with lower entry age.
The Way Forward
Unfortunately, most people tend to believe in the commonly touted reasons for the low intake of officers—like the youth is no more interested in service life due to tough conditions and greener pastures of the corporate world. If the above reasons are accepted, we are fated to live with the shortages, as neither the service life can be made less demanding nor can the service officers be paid at par with the corporate sector.
The shortage of officers in the services cannot be permitted to continue indefinitely as it is having a debilitating effect on the functioning of the units. Increase in remunerations will have negligible impact as the corporate sector can never be matched. Compulsory military service is no solution as the intake will be of indifferent quality with no motivation at all. Presently, the services pride themselves in saying that they are ready to live with under-subscription rather than lower standards. It is a highly misplaced statement.
Shortage of officers at junior levels is taking a very heavy toll of unit cohesion. Officers are holding multiple appointments and are overworked. They cannot devote adequate time to man-management with the result that ‘bonding’ suffers. Prudence lies in filling all existing vacancies with the best candidates available, rather than look for the elusive ideal material.
As regards the selection process, there is a need to change the basic approach. Of late selection boards have come to be viewed as rejection boards. It is commonly said that even the assessors would fail if they appear before their own selection boards. The present system of trying to probe for angularities and limitations is most detrimental to the overall environment.
A graduation degree cannot be the sole justification for forfeiting opportunity to pick the best youth for the services. With enhanced entry age, students have multiple career options, the services being one of them.
The selection process should focus on finding out if a candidate has the required qualities and the potential to be a service officer. All assessors should be asked to award marks to various qualities as per the assigned weightage. They should not be asked to brand a candidate fit or unfit. An overall merit list should then be prepared and call letters issued accordingly as per the vacancies available. Such an arrangement will eliminate tendency to create border-liners as also ensure that the best material available is inducted to fill all vacancies. In case all 36 percent border-liners are graded fit, there would be no shortfall at all. With an APR of 431, it can be reasonably assumed that if an objective merit list is prepared, the top order will be of sufficiently good quality to fill all vacancies.
One of the common justifications for enhancing entry qualification to 10+2 is that graduation at the NDA helps in a second career after retirement. It is a strange logic. The priorities are totally misplaced. At the start of service career, interests of military service (may be of 30 years span) are being subordinated to post retirement resettlement. The services should focus on their needs, rather than be unduly concerned with other issues. In any case, suitable arrangements can always be put in place to help officers obtain graduation degree prior to their retirement.
Most importantly, entry age and educational qualification for admission to the NDA should be reduced to the earlier standards. All over the world the ruling mantra is to ‘catch them early and catch them young’. All corporate houses go to professional colleges to recruit people in campus interviews. They pay exorbitant charges to the colleges to have the first pick. The services have irrationally surrendered the same advantage and now have to do with what they unfairly call ‘left-overs’. Reduction in entry age to the previous levels (15 to 17 years) will also increase trainability quotient, thereby making it much easier to cast the net wider to select suitable raw youth and train it according to the requirements of the services.