The fallacies of both the Indian Army’s recruit and officer selection system have once again come under the scanner with the leak of army recruitment exam question papers for which a Major rank officer had been taken into custody. A Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe launched into armed forces officer selection in which 17 Indian Army personnel, including five Lieutenant Colonels and two Major-ranked officers apart from six others have been caught in an officer recruitment scandal at several Service Selection Board (SSB) Centres.
The issue of officer selection, training, grooming, and the perceived dichotomy between the Defence Institute of Psychological Research (DIPR) based selection system and the requirements of the end-user; the tri-services have been laid threadbare, however, the perceived need for recruitment reforms in the selection of Personnel Below Officer Rank (PBOR) have not been holistically reviewed in the public domain and have been limited to the incident-based reportage of recruitment scandals.
This correspondent aims to highlight perceived inadequacies in the present Recruitment Directorate-led selection system and bring readers well-considered views by serving officers and ex-servicemen dealing with or have dealt with recruitment and manpower issues in the Indian Army.
What is the Issue & Why does it Persist?
Colonel Vinay B Dalvi (Retd), author of the Victory India anthology and a vehement critic of the Indian Armed Force’s existing ‘officer and recruit’ selection system says, “The Indian Army’s selection system for recruits is over 73 years old that was meant for the pre-independence native Indian Army led by the British during Colonial rule. The dynamics then were different! We were a led force, fighting for the crown, today we fight for Naam, Namak, and Nishan, we lead our troops, and our troops fight for the national interest!”
He goes on to say, “With 65% of our 13 million Indian population below 35 years of age, there should be at least 30-40% under the ages 20-25 and suitable for undergoing army recruitment entrance tests. Because of this massive availability of manpower, we do not seem to value our manpower and take our outdated selection system for granted.
“The present selection system has a physical evaluation with a 1mile run as the initial screening test in which all the aspiring candidates are put through this like herds of cattle! Only those who can run like Milkha Singh qualify for this grueling screening for which the timings are raised even beyond the excellent grade applicable for trained soldiers! Those who cannot run like Milkha stand no chance to qualify in the screening test.”
“The other physical tests like balance, pull-ups/chin-ups are conducted later after the screening test of 1 mile. Medical tests are preceded by a written examination following which the merit list is drawn out,” further elaborated the former Colonel.Speaking about the need to impart service-specific selection and training, Col. Dalvi says, “India’s 13 lakh strong army has over 10 lakh soldiers who are part of various combat arms and services, all of which need specially qualified and trained personnel depending on their trades and the needs of the individual ‘arm’ or ‘services’.”
“With 21st-century warfare confronting us with multiple threats and challenges on our vast frontiers and within the country, there is indeed an imperative need to seriously review and revise our army recruitment system for soldiers to meet the current technical and professional needs of our fighting forces,” adds Col. Dalvi.
The military author told this correspondent about his personal experiences with the recruitment system, highlighting glaring lapses! “My interaction with numerous recruiting officers over the last decade, especially the Zonal Recruitment Officer (ZRO), Pune has revealed glaring flaws, shortcomings, and drawbacks in our present system. Several papers have been written in the past by both concerned officers and veterans to modify and improve the system. Unfortunately, they are lying in the deep freezer!
“My late father served as ZRO Pune from 1964-68. They wanted his photograph for the office of the new Additional Director, Recruiting, Southern Command. When I enquired about our over seven-decade-old selection system I was told that it is the same as it was during your father’s time! That was the 1960s! There is an imperative need to review, revise and reform it in the interest of the army and the nation at large.”
A serving recruitment officer too reached out to this correspondent during the research for this story, quotes from the interaction have been reproduced verbatim on the condition of anonymity. “The 1-mile test is the first filter for even categories like Soldier Technical, Soldier Aviation, Soldier Pharmaceutical and Religious Teachers Junior Commissioned Officers.” The recruiting officer spoke about caste and community-based reservation in the recruitment system, “Even if you do not find meritorious candidates in a particular caste then also, we must fill the vacancies as a large number of regiments in the Indian Army are caste-based.”
The recruitment officer went on to speak about the perceived inequality ingrained in the current selection system, “Candidates are not getting a fair chance because the recruitment system is still following the decades-old open rallies, where almost 50,000 candidates appear for an average of 600 vacancies. They are made to run in batches of minimum 200 aspirants and medical examinations are conducted on the spot in an extreme sit of run against time.” The lack of transparency in recruitment is another point of contention according to the officer, “Neither the vacancies are declassified in the advertisement nor is any reserve list maintained. These two aspects create an undesirable sight of non-transparency in the recruitment process.”
Another potential area for reform lies in the recruitment directorate’s outdated verification measures, which the officer said, “is an immensely sensitive issue concerning national security, despite that the access to the AADHAR data bank and Digi lockers are not there with the Directorate of Recruiting. Age-old procedures of verification by Pradhan, Police Patil and District Collector’s office is carrying on.”
I interviewed ex-servicemen who dealt with manpower issues at the highest levels while in office, excerpt from those interviews’ views has been reproduced by the readers: Major General Anil Senger (Retd) who served as an Additional Director General Mechanised Forces (ADG MF) and authored several books on leadership and manpower issues said, “The very tight one-mile test is a filter that keeps excellent potential candidates out and makes recruitment easier by restricting the numbers to a manageable degree the need today has changed and the military needs an intake with many different qualities. It is the large numbers that were a major problem, and the one mile was a way to simplify matters.”
“For long there has been thought of having online written tests first to get better-educated intake. I am not sure at what stage of implementation that stands. Like the SSB, there is a need for a test that identifies better soldier and junior leader material. For sure, the old system is too archaic. I know a lot has changed in the process, but a lot more needs to be done in the substance.” The General stressed.
Former Additional Director General (Recruitment) (SC) Maj Gen. Vijay Pingale (Retd), had this to say, “Online exam for desirous candidates was planned three years back and infrastructure was partially put in place at various Area Recruitment Offices. However, states with low education levels were not in favour as they will miss out on vacancies. Every year there are about 80 to 85,000 vacancies divided between 11 ZROs, these vacancies are further allotted to various AROs, each ZRO depending on the size and population of the Zone has between four to seven AROs. The whole issues are that we must cater for the regiment and caste affliction of each group and regiment.”
The system of online entrance exams can only be effective if fixed class regiments and units are done away with, which may not find favour with the military hierarchy. This may also lead to some states and groups missing out, which may not be acceptable to politicians. Some programs have been made as far as recruitment of women in the Corps of Military Police is concerned. For about 100 vacancies, more than two lakh applications are received. To limit attendance for initial selection through physical tests, the cut-off 85% in Secondary School Certificate marks were applied.” Added the former DG Recruitment.
General Pingale went on to say, “However, here too vacancies are zone wise, so the merit is drawn zone wise. It is often seen that some zones have better material and higher merit girls, but they miss out because of zonal vacancies. Girls with lower marks from other zones may go through because of the overall lower merit of candidates.”
Highlighting a distinction between the army the way the other two services conduct their recruiting the General said, “In the Indian Air Force and Indian Navy due to limited vacancies per year and no fixed class affliction, they can manage it better and they even conduct psychological tests in addition to other tests followed in army recruitment. Due to all these contradictions, the old system has continued. A bold and decisive leadership at mil and political level is required to take a call on this.”
Ex-Servicemen activist Major P M Ravindran (Retd), spoke about the existing physical testing and the need to systematically eradicate corruption which seems to have seeped into the recruitment system, “Firstly, we do not have an ab initio rational selection process for most of our public services. The first stage is a process of elimination, either by laying down meaningless qualifications or physical fitness standards. So, the 1-mile run is an elimination process when you must select only 500 from a group of 50,000. Bringing it to a manageable level of say 5,000.
“Next, coming to different aspects of physical fitness, the requirement for various arms/services needs to be identified before we go on to the second stage of other fitness tests. Even here if a common minimum standard is prescribed it should be acceptable because the differences can be sorted out during the training period. If different standards are prescribed, then the selection process will have to be customised from this stage itself. With the ones for services being tested separately.
“Thirdly, the more important requirement while recruiting troops for arms and services must be their aptitude or proficiency in the trade to be allotted. So, this must be done differently from what is being “followed now. While diploma holders need to be recruited into technical trades, the general category sepoys should have only a minimum qualification like Secondary Level School Certificate or 10th standard.
“Lastly, leaking of question papers is an issue of corruption and that can be tackled only if the punishment is prompt and deterrent. The written test if replaced with online tests can help to reduce the possibility of corruption.
“I have also read reports of middlemen working in the recruitment area. What happens is that these guys identify candidates who are likely to be selected and approach them with offers of ensuring selection at a cost. They will even promise to return the bribe if a particular candidate is not selected. If out of 10 gullible candidates so trapped, even if two are genuinely selected the self-advertised middlemen would have made their day.
“Similar experiences have been narrated by even college professors on examination duty. I have tried to think of a solution for this but failed. So long as corruption rules the roost and there are gullible or desperate job seekers, we can only pity the victims,” said the veteran and activist.