A study being undertaken by the Indian Army Training Command to reform its training system is expected to address a wide gamut of grooming, selection and recruitment practices.
The Indian Army is learnt to be conducting a study through the Army Training Command (ARTRAC) to review its training procedures, where sources say “structured” Physical Training (PT) and Physical Education (PE) are some of the modules being examined. Aimed at reforming “obsolete” training practices in its Pre-Commissioning Training Academies (PCTA) that has led to falling physical fitness standards, experts say they hope the study addresses a series of long overdue training and selection procedure reforms.
With a view to infuse a “physical fitness culture” by giving military training a more “scientific” and professional Sports Medicine-orientation, officers say it only complements the army’s physical rigour-intensive roles. While the full remit and the ‘terms of reference’ of the study is unclear, one of the issues being considered is the revival of the Army Physical Training Corps (APTC), which, while envisaged to undertake a ‘train the trainer’-like programmes and maintain physical fitness levels in the army, has overtime come to be “saddled” with preparing candidates for merely elite sports events. “The focus of the APTC shifted from combat Physical Training, which is the mainstay of a land army’s service,” said retired Brigadier Sarvesh Dangwal. Dangwal, a former infantry officer from the 4 Garhwal Rifles, also served in the APTC for 25 years.
Another internal study had pointed to how only 3% of Indian Army units have Officers’ Physical Training Course (OPTC) qualified officers, itself due to sheer drop these courses – a mere two a year from the six that were held annually in the 1990s. Officers have attributed the army’s long running vacancies in junior and mid-senior level ranks and increased “operational commitments” as therefore having deprived 97% of army units of qualified Sports and PT Officers. Approximately 2000 officers get commissioned in the army each year from the Indian Military Academy (IMA) in Dehra Dun and the two Officers Training Academies (OTA) at Chennai and Gaya. The latter two train male and female Cadets for the Short Service Commission (SSC) entry.
“A 2020 study revealed that between 62% to 65% of the cadets had sustained some form of injury during their pre-commissioning training of which 26% was because of accidents. Overtraining, excessive load on joints and muscles and poor warm up or recovery periods accounted for 19%, 18% and 9% of the causes respectively,” said a retired officer. He also pointed to how libraries of the National Defence Academy (NDA), Military College of Telecommunication Engineering (MCTE) in Mhow, the College of Military Engineering (CME) or the two OTAs have barely 1% of the books in their libraries on Physical Training, Physical Theory, sports and fitness.
This is the third such training review being undertaken in the army, with the first such exercise conducted between 1968-69 under then Chief of Army Staff General SHFJ Manekshaw (later Field Marshal). The next review that took place in 1986 under General Krishnaswamy Sunderji was a more professional and sophisticated three-year project that came out with a revised Training and Testing System by 1990.
The new training review is also expected to check practices of ragging and “unsanctioned rigour” – rooted in traditional ‘rights of passage’ in premier institutes like the NDA in Pune – that has long lead to an attrition of 16% to 20% of cadets every year and made the need for a revised training doctrine even more acute, according to veterans. “Traditions of unsupervised and inexperienced senior cadets, punishing their juniors with backflips, rolling down staircases are perpetuated when these officers are posted back at the academy as instructors and are overcome with nostalgia. The cycle continues,” said former Northern Army Commander Lieutenant General HS Panag, an NDA alumni, who had also served as the Director General of Military Training (DGMT).
At the NDA, after army, navy and air force cadets earn a graduate degree in science or arts affiliated to the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), they head to the IMA, the Indian Naval Academy at Ezhimala in Kerala or the Indian Air Force Academy at Begumpet receive the specialised ‘commissioning training’ for their respective services.
The fate of disabled ‘boarded out’ cadets themselves has been another area of the military bureaucracy’s bizarre legalese. After sustaining near-permanent injuries – classified into broad-banded percentages viz. 20%, 50% and 100% – they survive on measly ‘Monthly Ex-Gratia Payment’ lower than even recruits of the rank of a Sepoy, which are a (Group C/Class III) service. Veterans, and a 2015 commission under then Defence Minister, the late Manohar Parrikar had recommended such cadets to be identified as Ex-Servicemen (ESM) with full access to Ex-Servicemen Contributory Health Scheme (ECHS) and service hospitals.
Reform the Reformer?
The Army Training Command (ARTRAC) however itself has been pointed to be needing reforms, ranging from the manner of appointment of officers and its heads (Lieutenant Generals – Lt Gens), to the cultivation of an “intellectual” culture there. A Lt Gen heading the ARTRAC is an Army Commander-rank officer, besides six-other Army Commander posts (Eastern Command, Western Command, Southern Command, Northern Command, South Western Command and the Vice Chief of Army Staff).
“Lieutenant Generals are appointed to the ARTRAC not based on their aptitude but when a vacancy arises, with barely anyone completing their full schedules. Research scholars too are not attached to the ARTRAC. Even the basic training of recruits is not under the ARTRAC with each arm and service directorates (viz infantry, artillery, armoured corps Army Service Corps etc.) dictating the training, overseen by the Sub-Area Commander,” says Panag.
The gamut of the issue broadens even further when ones considers Panag’s recommendation to have junior leaders’ training academies to groom Junior Commissioned Officers (JCO) and Non-Commissioned Officers (NCO) to command their sub-units, with only 10% of them undergoing such training.
A Holistic Approach
However, experts also hope that the study widens its scope to reforming the officer selection procedure too, as it is the stage preceding training and reforming merely one part would not make the exercise “holistic”. According to retired Brigadier LC Patnaik, a former Chairman of the Odisha Public Service Commission (OPSC) and who headed a Services Selection Board (SSB) center, the Raj-era officer selection procedure has been hitherto unchanged.
Candidates clearing written exams either for the NDA or the IMA conducted by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) head to one of the 13 Services Selection Boards (SSB) centers across India, of which four each are for the army and the Air Force and five for the Indian Navy. A five-day selection process ensues with a series of personality, psychological and group task tests with those clearing them staying back for the medical tests. “However, on the first day itself, a Screening Test with intelligence and aptitude checks filters nearly half of the candidates who are sent back the same day. This disallows them from fully demonstrating any potential Officer-Like Qualities (OLQ) through a thorough assessment,” Patnaik explains.
Colonel Vinay Dalvi (retd), who had served an instructor in the NDA, IMA and OTA, meanwhile points towards a disconnect between the developers of the selection procedure, the Defence Institute of Psychological Research (DIPR) – a cell of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) – and the military. “The ‘end-user’, the armed forces, are not involved in the manner in which the ‘product’, the officer candidates, are selected, which is absurd,” Dalvi adds.
Lt Gen DB Shekhatkar (Retd), who headed a MoD-appointed committee studying reorganisation of the army and improving its ‘tooth-to-tail ratio’, has rather recommended the scrapping of the DIPR itself, and suggested hiring psychologists and assessors externally. “The DIPR came up after the 1962 war, but was still influenced by the British who primarily tested loyalty and dependability quotients. However, it did not keep up with the changing nature of society and the armed forces. The SSBs have totally failed us,” he said in an interview to leading defence affairs magazine Mission Victory India.
Panag adds that even the selection system for recruits (or Personnel Below Officer Ranks-PBORS) is outmoded. The army still reserves certain percentages for various castes and communities in the various states and region-based infantry regiments and the artillery and armoured corps arms. “Instead, like the officer selection system, there should be an all-India merit list, which is released after candidates are put through the 5-6 day SSB process, besides psychological and personality tests for recruit candidates too. The minimum educational qualification still remains standard 10, when we can take candidates for PBOR posts who hold 10+2 or even graduate degrees,” Panag added.