The Shekatkar Committee report has recommended the closure of several Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) labs, one of them being the Delhi based, Defence institute of Psychological Research (DIPR) which is the lab responsible for the development of the Indian Armed Forces officer selection.
The DIPR created Services Selection Board (SSB) has not been reviewed for over seven decades. This is despite the rapid pace of military growth and evolving trends in warfare that have taken place and also the recent news of unfortunate happenings that have brought our officer selection system under the scanner of CBI and also public awareness.
All these have resulted in the following questions being raised by analysts and journalists keen to know all the facts from qualified and experienced selectors to draw their own conclusions through the following questions.
Brigadier Rajbir Singh (Retd), a postgraduate in Psychology and DIPR/SSB qualified officer who served as both a Psychologist and Technical Officer in three selection centers spoke to Mission Victory India in part-3 of this ongoing interview series on the Shekatkar Committee recommendations calling for a closure of the DIPR and its SSB system.
Excerpts from the Interview…
Q. Could you trace the origins of the DIPR based SSB selection system? Do you believe that it has adequately lived up to its mandate?
Ans: The present-day DIPR started out as a small experimental board for the selection of officers at Dehradun. Wartime selection interviews were ad-hoc, and a need was felt for more comprehensive testing in line with foreign armies. The experimental board was re-designated as the Psychological Research Wing (PRW) to evolve a scientific system to select officers.
The Directorate of Psychological Research (DPR) came into existence in 1962 with additional responsibility to research related to morale, group effectiveness and leadership behaviour.
DPR was the department of MOD. In 1982 DPR became a lab of DRDO and was rechristened as The Defence Institute of Psychological Research (DIPR). Its charter was comprehensive and onerous. Besides other research assigned as DPR, now DIPR was tasked to take on research on the effects of high-altitudes on the human mind, anthropometrics, and civil-military relations and more.
The system in vogue is nearly seven decades old. The psychological aspect is built on the projective techniques, which is the legacy of the last century's thirties and forties. Even now, the plates of the images projected in the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) were standardised in the fifties. The concept is logical but woefully lacks validity and reliability that is the acid test of any psychological instrument. Two persons testing the same individual will reach different assessments.
For this reason, armies that started the system have moved away and are no more using this technique of projective tests. Group dynamics, the Group Testing Officers' system (GTOs), was also evolved alongside the psychological one and is still relevant. It is based on the GTO manual first designed in the early fifties with minor modifications later. It does bring out the strength and weakness to a perceptive assessor effectively.
The GTO system is still working well in the British Army Selection Boards with minor modification. A personal interview is the third dimension of the process. It is relevant and will always remain essential. The only reason for its low validity is the so-called Halo or Horn effect.
Here the poorly trained assessors get carried away or otherwise due to their biases for or against based on educational background, ethnicity, religious or regional affiliations. I even know of an assessor who liked tall, fair and candidates coming from good schools a lot.
He did not like those who were small-statured and of dark complexion. Strict selection and intensive training of the Interviewing Officers (IO) is of paramount importance. It is essential because they are the senior partners in the selection process and carry the weight of their ranks which they frequently use.
Q. The Shekatkar Committee report had recommended the closure of several DRDO labs, one of them being the DIPR. Would you agree with the committee’s recommendation? If so, why? What alternatives would you propose to replace the over seven-decade old SSB system?
Ans: The recommendation to disband DIPR is based on its total non-performance over the decades. Unfortunately, the organisation is now an integral part of the DRDO, which is doing an excellent job on several other fronts.
Hundred odd psychologists now designated as Scientists have been recruited with a unique system of progression in service. They are starting from scientist A to Scientist G and are well entrenched in the system.
I do not know even non-performing and defunct governmental organisation getting disbanded. It is a depressing situation but valid at the same time. The Chief of Staff Committee (COSC) can demand accountability, and a high-powered committee must set time-bound goals related to assessment related research and periodic renewal of testing tools of the SSBs.
Q. The DIPR had announced a ‘De Novo Selection System’ as an upgrade to the present system; Do you feel that the proposed system would have been a functional upgrade to the existing system, or should the status quo continue to be maintained, or scrapped entirely?
Ans: The introduction of the new testing system must go through the proper scientific process. It must be evolved after deep, widespread, and open discussion. It must start with the basic concepts, working out the qualities or Officer Like Qualities (OLQ) needed in modern times, contents analysis, validation exercises and reliable trials. It cannot be a hush exercise designed within the four walls of DIPR.
It is a modern India now, unlike the nation of the mid-fifties of the last century. Since the so-called De Novo system has not been discussed and reviewed outside, it cannot be introduced. No experimentation of the kind of screening test will be acceptable now. The screening test introduced in 1998 has done much harm to the testing process. Thousands of the candidates suffered. I hope no such system without in-depth review and trials is introduced for testing.
Q. Do you feel that the SSB system in its present form continues to remain relevant in the present times? Is it effective in meeting future tri-service officer requirements? Lastly, does it truly consider the requirements of the pre-commission training academies?
Ans: The SSB selection is meant to assess the essential traits and potentialities needed for the three services officers. The Airforce conducts its aptitude test for the candidates applying for the flying branch. Navy can add their aptitude test if necessary.
The only weak link in the process is the validation at the training academy level. The assessors of the SSBs need to visit the training academies to ensure that the trainers are taking care of the negative observations in respect of the candidates.
Sizeable numbers are cleared, hoping that some of the OLQs found below average at the selection stage will be developed during training under the trainers' guidance. It is a matter of experience that no such development is ensured. Failing which candidates pass out with deficiencies that become a hurdle in shaping up as ideal officers.
Q. What should the tri-services do at both an intra-service level and inter-service level to review, revise, refine and re-establish their officer selection systems without the involvement or interference of the DIPR? How would you propose they meet their selection needs in a way that is sync with their actual training needs and service requirements?
Ans: The DIPR continues to exist as there is no alternative proposed. In any case, many such reasonable recommendations continue to lie in the governmental archives. In the light of the fact that DIPR cannot be disbanded and the scientific community there existed without performance so long may not change their attitude. The services need to take decided action at their end. The COSC must take away assessment work from DIPR.
A reputed national or international agency can be entrusted to work out an alternative to the present tests used in the SSBs. A psychological unit can come up under the MoD to guide and control the SSB testing.
Q. Explain what is meant by: ‘Trainability’ and ‘Potentiality’. How does it influence the selection or rejection of SSB candidates? Is the entire selection process not subjective and opaque rather than objective and transparent from the rejected candidate’s point of view and their trainers or feeder institutes? Should not the system apparently become more fair, transparent, and objective?
Ans: ‘Potentiality’ and ‘trainability’ are used interchangeably. Potentiality means 'natural tendency or ability. It is more akin to the word aptitude. It also means 'possession of the necessary skill or power to do something. In the SSB interview, the assessors use the concept of trainability as the projected ability to be shaped as a good soldier.
The four guiding indices to subjectively gauge transformation as a soldier are; age, intelligence, motivation and self-insight into one's strengths and weaknesses. The assessment of trainability or potentiality is purely subjective and is at the assessor's whims that no one questions the assessors about it.
The system is indeed opaque and unfair to the rejected lot, who deserve to be informed of the weaknesses observed that lead to their failure. It is a fair idea that they are individually informed and counselled to come better prepared next time. This way, they will depart from the selection centre more confident than confused and demoralised, as is the case now.
Q. An Indian Army War College (AWC) study found that the lack of mandatory physical tests in the SSB was correlated to the high wastage rates and medical relegations in the training academies.
Given that physical proficiency tests are part of officer selection in militaries the world over, do you feel that the SSBs should incorporate physical tests to filter prospective candidates, and potentially reduce the relegations rates at the academies?
Ans: Large numbers of relegations and withdrawals from the training academies are due to the candidates' poor physical state. Even those who stay in the academies with restricted physical conditioning suffer stress fractures.
It is a sad scenario that Col Vinay Dalvi is consistently projecting in innumerable fora. We are aware that such cadets' real military training also suffers as they remain in a high mental stress state throughout the training period.
It also results in poor self-image, which is detrimental to the well-being of future officers. The only reason for the non-inclusion of the basic physical tests in the screening process is irrational mega procrastination of DIPR and the services Head Quarters. I find this neglect unpardonable.
About the Interviewee
Brigadier Rajbir Singh, is a psychologist who has had extensive experience with the Indian Armed Forces Officer selection system. He was commissioned in the Army Educational Corps in June 1975 from the Indian Military Academy (IMA) and is a postgraduate in Psychology. The veteran has held a number of instructional appointments including one in the Army Cadet College (ACC).
He worked in all the three Service Selection Centers as Technical Officer and as a Psychologist. He retired from IMA where he was last posted as Head of Academic Department. He is presently working as a consultant in an organisation engaged in assessing the corporate managers.