Looking Beyond Relegations: The 25-Year-Old Battle to incorporate ‘Mandatory Physical Tests at SSBs’

“The Indian Army conducts Physical Fitness Tests of 100 marks in the selection of recruits, but there are no mandatory physical tests in the officer candidate screening during SSB." –Extract from Paper Published in the Army War College Journal 2020

Looking Beyond Relegations: The 25-Year-Old Battle to incorporate ‘Mandatory Physical Tests at SSBs’

13 Relegations? Hardly a New Occurrence

The Week’s Pradip R Sagar’s article ‘Mean Manoeuvre’ published on 24 May 2020 pertaining to the relegation of 13 Lady Cadets (LC) from the Officers Training Academy (OTA), Chennai, raised a storm amongst the military community.

However, such widespread relegations in a single course in one of the country’s premier pre-commission training academies is hardly a new phenomenon.

The ‘Cradle of Military Leadership,’ the National Defence Academy (NDA), situated in Khadakwasla, Pune witnessed 69 relegations in the academy around a year ago.

Several officers and veterans privy to the intricacies of Officer Selection and Training have unanimously said that these “routine occurrences” have been going on “for donkey’s years!”

Of the host of challenges plaguing Officer Selection and Training i.e. unofficial training, more colloquially referred to as Ragda. The Outdated Physical Training Methodology, the most hazardous of all these has been the lack of mandatory physical tests at the Services Selection Boards (SSB).

The need for mandatory Physical Efficiency Test (PET) in the SSB has been harped on by generations of officers, but proposals to incorporate the same have been “regularly and deliberately” shot down by “organisations with vested interests like the Defence Institute of Psychological Research (DIPR)...

...along with the inability of the Director General Recruiting (DG Recruiting), Adjutant General (AG) and the Chief of Staff Committee (COSC), especially the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) to intelligently comprehend the entire DIPR based SSB selection system, and its intricate linkage with the training syllabus, and physical training methodology in the academies.

This holds true especially for the NDA where wastage rates of officer cadets have remained exorbitantly high for the past 25 year,” according to officials in tune with the selection procedure.

The country’s elite military academies such as the NDA, IMA, OTA have repeatedly taken this critical issue up for over a quarter-century now, but have failed to incorporate any form of mandatory physical tests in the SSBs, nor have they been able to introduce any form of Field Tests in the selection procedure.

This lack of incorporation of PT for the past 25 years have severely handicapped the military academies in bringing up the standards of their cadets and have negatively affected other aspects of military and academic training.

This has consequently led to abysmally high wastage rates. Such a significant loss of trainable human resources at a time when the armed forces are already financially crunched, and at an all-time low in terms of manpower, requires a serious introspection by all concerned.

Cadets during cross country run (Representational Image)

DIPR Study: 18 Out of 100 GC’s Wasted at NDA

A Defence Institute of Psychological Research (DIPR) study conducted in the year 2000 to identify the leading causes of the NDA suffering such a high wastage rate came to the same harrowing conclusions cited by Col. Dalvi.

The DIPR studied a total of 10 training courses spanning between 96 Course NDA to 106 Course NDA. It was concluded that the premier tri-services institution designed exclusively for basic training had an overall wastage rate of 18%; Meaning out of every 100 GC’s 18 of them were relegated or boarded out.

The study identified the leading cause of wastage to be “the non-structured training beyond the official training curriculum and training hours.” The Ragda culture has been exposed by several eminent veterans and members of the media in detail.

Also Read:https://theprint.in/opinion/outdated-courses-to-rampant-ragging-why-indias-national-defence-academy-needs-urgent-help/264363/

Also Read: https://asiatimes.com/2018/01/national-defense-academy-faces-unprecedented-burnout/

Indian Army’s Research Says: Physical Tests are Needed at the SSB

It is not just veterans calling for an overhaul of the selection procedure, the Indian Army’s own study has pointed out this glaring shortcomings in officer selection. MVI reviewed an internal study published in the Army War College Journal 2020, which highlights the disparity in the fitness criteria of the officer candidates and the enlisted ranks whom they are meant to lead.

An excerpt of the study reads, “The Indian Army conducts Physical Fitness Tests of 100 marks in the selection of recruits, but there are no mandatory physical tests in the officer candidate screening during SSB. Most professional armies in the world like the USA, the UK, Australia, Greece, etc. conduct physical fitness tests as part of the selection process of the officer entry candidates.

It is recommended to include three physical tests on the first day of the SSB - 2.4 Km Run, Chin Ups and Sit Ups. A two-page fitness brochure should be provided to all candidates appearing for SSB like Australian Army to guide candidates in preparing for this test.”

A PTO’s Story

Speaking about the need for mandatory Physical Efficiency Test (PET) in the SSB, Colonel Vinay B Dalvi, a former Maratha LI and APTC officer, who served as Physical Training Officer (PTO) at all three of the aforementioned pre-commission training academies, said, “I served as PTO Indian Military Academy (IMA), Dehradun, following which I served as PTO at OTA, Chennai, and then as PTO NDA.

After which I served as PTO IMA for the second time. During my nine years at three of the country's most prestigious training institutions, I had witnessed an abysmal rate of relegations and injuries sustained by the cadets.”

Speaking about the correlation of injuries sustained in the training institutions due to lack of rudimentary selection reforms, the former PTO said, “The driving factor for such an astoundingly high wastage rate is surprisingly simple, and very well avoidable, if only the respective authorities had incorporated mandatory PET at the SSBs.

It has been a quarter of a century since I first stepped foot as a PTO at IMA, and despite writing a compendium of literature on the subject of military training, the situation unfortunately remains the same.”

Splitting the anatomy of the flawed selection model and its impact on the cadets and training staff, he said,

“The crux of the issue is that ‘physically weak candidates’ assessed purely based on intelligence, aptitude, positive trainability, and potential for leadership development, are screened in and receive joining letters with only an advisory recommending a few conditioning exercises for appearing in a screening test after reporting for training.”

Adding, he said, “Before the commencement of their training at the academies, the new entrants are made to undergo this short PT screening test on the lines modelled for recruitment of Army Jawans.

These screening tests are simply a formality as the majority (50% to75%) fail in the main tests like the 1.6km run and chin ups. These tests only serve as a yardstick to identify the physically weaker cadets.”

“The plight of these physically weak cadets starts with the pressure of their instructors and senior cadets for inter-squadron competitions like cross country, and for passing mandatory PT, and swimming in the form of non- structured training which become a recipe for disaster leading to high rates of injuries and relegations,” quoted the reform-seeker.

Col. Dalvi stated, “Cadets who come from feeder institutions have traditionally fared better.

The cadets who do pass the screening tests, and are also able to cope with the pressure from their instructors and senior cadets for inter-squadron competitions like cross country are mainly from feeder schools and institutes like the Rashtriya Indian Military College (RIMC), Sainik school and other military schools or other schools with a military lifestyle or routine.”

“The main lacunae or rather shortcoming is the major disconnect between the selection standards for physical fitness at the various SSBs and the actual physical standards demanded at military academies, especially NDA, where the standards are whimsically raised even beyond the standards demanded at finishing academies like IMA.

All these factors add to the woes of the physically weak cadets who find it extremely difficult to meet the high expectations resulting in their sustaining stress injuries and other injuries resulting in relegations and even withdrawal,” explained the former APTC officer.

A Rallying Cry Falls on Deaf Ears…

Speaking about his bid to change the existing selection system, the former PTO said, “I have been advocating for a change in the selection system at the SSBs for over two decades now, and had first raised the issue as PTO IMA in ’95 when I saw some extremely weak cadets joining the IMA that resulted in their relegations despite their best efforts and extra training.

It was then that the case for mandatory tests at SSBs was taken up by IMA, at my behest, with the Army Training Command (ARTRAC).”

The former PTO recounted, “The justification for mandatory tests at SSBs was the high rate of relegations and injuries sustained by physically weak cadets. The initiative of the IMA was conveyed to my counterparts at the NDA and OTA who also projected the need through their academies to respective higher HQs–DGMT, ARTRAC, IDS.”

“However, despite all three academies [NDA, IMA and OTA] pursuing the matter the DG Recruiting, AG, DIPR did not realise the technicalities, and seriousness of the issues and continued to maintain the 'status quo' for SSB selection.

During my tenure as PTO NDA, and IMA during 2001-2007 I relentlessly continued to pursue the case for mandatory physical tests at the SSBs but the pleas fell on deaf ears and the military hierarchy and DIPR-based SSB selection system continued without any change,” narrated Col. Dalvi.

Highlighting his futile efforts, Col. Dalvi said, “Post retirement my book Role Model (2010) and five volumes of the Victory India Campaign comprising over 250 articles and essays by over 50 military luminaries have amply and elaborately justified the need to improve the quality of our military leadership.

This includes the imperative and inescapable need to introduce mandatory physical tests at the SSBs. However, so far my efforts have largely fallen on deaf ears.”

When asked about the recent relegations at OTA, the retired Colonel said, “The recent case of 13 relegations of lady cadets at OTA, Chennai in March 2020 is a classic example of relegations due to low physical fitness entry standards at SSBs for lady cadets.

It is the need of the hour to introduce mandatory physical tests at SSBs for both boys and girls. These tests must 'match’ the physical standards demanded by the training academies.”

“This will objectively and meaningfully connect the selection criteria for physical fitness at the academies with the SSBs. Presently there is a big disconnect in this regard resulting in high wastage rate at academies and avoidable pressure on academies due to selection of physical weaklings who are a liability to the academies and consequently the service too.”

Strong Regimentation is a Proven Game Changer: Just Look at the CTWs

Col. Dalvi has stressed policy-makers to look at the success of the Cadet Training Wings (CTW) over other training establishments,

"It is pertinent to state that the performance of our CTWs of CME, MCEME & MCTE over the last two decades has been exceptionally good and far better than other academies, especially the NDA, with which it can be objectively compared due to same duration of training.

This is due to single service and regimental responsibility for training, and focused and coordinated training to meet actual service and regimental requirements.”

“Strong regimentation and single accountability were and will remain the main reasons why these breeds of cadets and officers are most preferred even in fighting arms despite being technical graduates. It is time for other academies, especially the NDA, to learn the right methodology of training and grooming from our own CTWs," opined Col. Dalvi.

Subject-Matter Experts Speak Out

‘Mission Victory India’ reached out to several ex-servicemen who are subject-matter experts and have been privy to the various stages of the selection procedure.

Former Chief of Naval Staff (CNS) and former Commandant NDA, Admiral Arun Prakash, told MVI, “Stringent physical efficiency tests need to be instituted in the SSB. The physical fitness requirements should be publicised so that potential candidates can prepare for the physical tests just like they do for the written exam.”

The former NDA Comdt., went on to say, “Now coming to the intervention by the DIPR in incorporating mandatory physical fitness tests at the SSB, well that is something the Service HQs would be well within their rights to overrule [the DIPR], as physically weak cadets joining service academies are unable to cope with training and require extra time and attention, thus, disrupting the schedule.”

“At the end of the day the selected candidates will go on to join the respective services, making the individual Service HQ’s primary stakeholders in the matter. This is something the Department of Military Affairs (DMA) can look into,” added the former Naval Chief.

Former IMA Comdt, Lieutenant General RS Sujlana also stressed on the need for mandatory physical tests, “Physical activity is a part of life which cannot be ignored. By no imagination do I take away the importance of intellect and knowledge. Varied vocations have their priority to physicals; in the armed forces it has a special and necessary place with its own priority."

Lt Gen Sujlana went on to say, "The selection process at the SSB has a proven standing but to make it more holistic there is a need to check out a potential cadet and future officer in basic physicals. If a soldier must pass mandatory physical tests on recruitment, its applicability to a future officer is equally important.”

“A potential cadet must be checked for basic stamina, agility, and strength by suitable tests. This will put the cadets on an even kneel at the start of training otherwise he will lag, even develop an inferiority complex and may even affect his/her merit on passing out.

It is my opinion that basic physical tests in facets as mentioned above be conducted during the selection process and must be based on the scientific advances that are available today,” added the former Comdt.

When asked by MVI about whether there is a need for mandatory physical tests at the SSB, Major General Raj Mehta replied, “Yes, absolutely! The incorporation of physical fitness evaluation in the SSB is crucial. It is a worldwide phenomenon led by practical sense, need, and necessity.

The selection system assesses a prospective candidates’ mental faculties that is the Intelligence and Emotional Quotient. What about the Physical Quotient? Not directly related. But the spiritual component too, SQ? If you are a man or a woman leading troops into battle then your physical fitness is just as important as your mental resilience.”

“I know that women today nowhere lead men into battle but once you have ‘climbed the Tiger’ as it were, in terms of broad decision-making that there is ‘combat-woman space in battle, today’s ‘women in combat-support tasking’ will one day lead men in battle and why not?

They are mentally capable of doing a good job. The Russians have lost thousands of women in combat; had them as amazing snipers far better than men; Israel has its Caracal Women battalions albeit with mixed results; and everywhere, women’s battle potential is being reviewed and calibrated.

We must join, albeit with tenuous steps, but must continue...and the entry Code Woman is exceptional fitness that accepts physiology and overcomes it, does not denigrate it.”

“If an officer is not physically robust then their men will not obey their commanders, this puts the  officers in a precarious situation as the men lose confidence in their officers ability, potentially leading to inadvertent incidents such as ‘fragging’ , which means killing of one’s own officer, an occurrence which was prevalent during the Vietnam War, owing to the fact that their officers were unable to effectively lead their men and put them at risk.”

“Therefore, the harmony between physical and mental strength is utmost in an officer and is something which must be tested on priority at the SSB. Candidates who cannot hack it should be weeded out in the selection process itself and not be subject to relegation in academies after commencement of training,” added Maj Gen Raj Mehta.

Maj. Gen Raj Mehta had earlier highlighted the lack of quantifiable PT at the SSB in his article ‘Military Selection Conundrum’ and ‘Grim Portents’ published in both Force and Geopolitics magazines, excerpts of which read,

“There is no quantifiable test of physical capability/weightage awarded during the SSB regimen. The individual and group obstacle tests assess OLQ, not physical fitness which is left for post selection evaluation by training academies.

The issue of physical fitness may sound like an anachronism in an elite training academy, but it is there for real and the NDA/other training academies aren’t to blame. What should have been checked by the SSB as an entry requirement has been forked off to the training academies as a ‘trainable’, hence, redundant factor for the SSB regime and with serious consequences.

Worrying levels of selected cadets who enter the academies are physically unfit and reflect their poor conditioning in ‘stress fractures’. Male Cadets of NDA course serials 116-125 suffered a staggering 466 stress fractures from July 2008 to August 2011 i.e. 12 a month or 155 fractures a year with an average 25.2 days hospital stay and overall absence from training for eight weeks.”

A stress fracture occurs when muscles become fatigued and cannot absorb stress/shock/repeated impact. Fatigued muscles transfer that stress to the nearby bones, the Tibia and Fibula.

Overall, a recent study for 10 NDA courses (Serials 96-106) revealed a wastage rate of 17-18 per cent, which is almost double the European and much higher than the Chinese average which is 12.45 per cent. Ratio of Academic/Physical Activity: As it was planned, the ratio of military vis-à-vis academic training should have been 30:70.

On ground, the absolute reverse has been in vogue. Seventy percent cadet time is spent in physical activities and 30 per cent in intellectual activity. Physical activity goes beyond authorised sporting and physical conditioning activity and includes ‘josh’ runs, ragging, practices for squadron level games/championship banners, all leading to gross overuse of the body.”

Also Read: http://forceindia.net/guest-column/guts-grit-and-glory/military-selection-conundrum/

Maj. Gen Mehta, added in conversation with this correspondent, that ‘romanticising’ ragda and josh,and ‘squadron spirit’ is always good in sepia recall but poor in terms of cadet wellness because valuable days are lost in ensuring a return to training which must be tempered with sense and sensibility.

Also Read: Grim Portents (Redux)

Speaking about the monopoly the DIPR holds over Officer selection, the General said, “No performance audit of the DIPR has ever been carried out by the military as DIPR/DRDO function under MoD whereas the Services are merely ‘attached’ offices, hence, outside the pale of the government rules of business."

"The irony is that the end users cannot question officer-selection norms and perhaps the reason why DIPR arrogantly bats for the status quo,” added Maj Gen Mehta.

Brigadier LC Patnaik, a former SSB President, and the present chairman of the ‘Odisha Public Service Commission’ (OPSC) too highlighted the need for mandatory PT in the selection stage,

“The SSBs have an in-built system of assessing physical efficiency of a candidate through the obstacle tests conducted as part of the GTO tests.

However, a separate test may be conducted for CDS, Short Service Entry or any entry at the post-graduate level as the training period is less and the body’s ability to respond to build up is limited. However, physical tests for NDA and Technical Entry Scheme (TES) entrants where the training period is longer, could be moderated with comparatively lesser standards.”

Speaking further about the wastage rates plaguing the NDA, as a result of the lack of physically fit cadets being selected, the former SSB president said, “The wastage at the pre-commission training institutions—especially at the NDA—has always been there.

In recent years, it is higher as games and physical training are no longer a priority in our school education and body metabolism has undergone transformation due to changing food habits.”

Proposing his solutions, Brigadier Patnaik said, “My proposed solutions are incorporation of scientific PT at the training establishments where body muscle index and respiratory systems are developed to build endurance. Less emphasis on conventional physical tests."

"They need to be replaced by scientific testing with advanced testing tools and equipment. Furthermore, diets need overhaul with more stress on proteins and calcium to build bones and muscles. The maximum cases in the early stage of training are stress fractures and other bone injuries.” added Brig Patnaik

“Segregation of physically weak cadets to ensure a longer progressive training with different test standards. Separate dietary plans under nutritional guidance and body forensics to build up the deficiencies. For graduate and woman entries, have separate physical test standards at the concerned academy. Yogic exercises can be part of physical training with measurable test standards,” he concluded.

Also Read: Selection Procedure in the Armed Forces: A Transformative Approach

Colonel Pradeep Dalvi, a former DIPR-qualified Group Training Officer (GTO) and Interviewing Officer (IO) at the SSB spoke extensively on the need for mandatory physical evaluation at the selection centres and shared a roadmap which he believes could be incorporated at the selection centres.

“Let me first appraise you on the foreign armies and their methodology in conducting SSB along with physical fitness tests. Britain, Canada, the USA, and even Pakistan have physical tests at their SSB."

He went on further, "It is strange that India and Pakistan have inherited the same selection process from British in 1947. Yet, Pakistan and the UK have drastically carried out radical changes in their selection process including physical tests for their inductees at SSB.”

He continued, “The process of carrying out physical tests varies in different countries, some do it at SSB and some in boot camps prior to reporting at SSB. The Indian Armed Forces are the only organizations where no tests are conducted at SSB or prior to SSB which is very surprising, resulting in additional load on the various training academies like the NDA, OTA, IMA and their equivalents in other services.

Keeping the rate of relegation, rejection, and not meeting the physical standards of training academies by men and women, it is highly recommended that basic physical standards should be incorporated in the SSB.”

“Keeping the above in view, it is recommended that suitable tests for men and women be incorporated for various age groups, NDA/Tech Entries (16-19), IMA and OTA equivalent (19-25) with their trainability factor.

Basic emphasis of these tests should be on the upper body and lower body capacity and strength. Timings and standards should be based on Indian conditions and trainability factors,” proposed Col. Pradeep Dalvi.

The following are some recommended tests by Col. Pradeep Dalvi:

Col. Pradeep Dalvi's SSB PET recommendations

Speaking about how the incorporation of PT will hold the armed forces in good stead, Col. Pradeep Dalvi said, “This will not only  benefit  academy training staff in achieving laid down physical standards for the cadets with little stress on scientific  orientation exercise.

It will also benefit the cadets in achieving laid down physical standards in the given duration without any injuries like stress fractures, muscle tear etc and avoid relegation and rejection from the academy.”

“It will be a win-win situation for both the cadets and academy training staff.  A good example is of Sainik school and military schoolboys joining NDA vis-à-vis boys from civil street without much physical development and tough time they face in academy in achieving desired physical standards.”

When asked about the present challenges in the selection process, Col Pradeep Dalvi replied, “There are three major structures or organizations involved in selection and training of cadets till his/her commissioning.

Firstly, the DIPR, secondly, the Dte of Recruiting including SSBs, and lastly, the training academies like NDA, OTA, IMA and their equivalents. All these agencies must work in unison for the benefit of the organization which presently is a major flaw in the existing system.”

He furthered, “As far as the inclusion of the physical test are concerned  at SSB it is the job of Recruiting Dte to push the case keeping in view the relegation, rejection, and wastage of manpower from the academies by ensuring physically fit cadets join the academies  and not rely on the trainability factor and the training staff.”

Speaking about the inadequacies within the DIPR, the former IO and GTO explained, “There is no adequate follow-up factor on cadets joining the academies from DIPR/SSB and AHQ leading to lack of coordination, and over relying on physical training staff.

The question of DIPR not willing to lose monopoly over selection and training is far fetched, it is the job of Armed forces (AHQ, Recruiting dte, SSB) to ensure that they get physically sound and mentally robust cadets from the youth of this country.”

The Way Forward

YO traversing obstacle at Commando School, Belgaum

Col. Pradeep Dalvi has proposed a way forward in dealing with a core issue which affects the very future of the nation's armed forces. “Selection and training of human resources is a complex subject. For 1.2 Million Armed Forces we do not have an HR directorate. What we have is splinter groups or directorates like AGs branch, training, recruiting directorate, SSBs, ARTRAC, working in isolation.”

“This has resulted in lack of coordination and control over selection of cadets to be officers in the armed forces who are the cutting-edge of the forces. Senior officers nominated to hold higher appointments like DG recruiting should be suitably qualified and should have done at least one tenure at the SSB as president.”

He concluded, “It is therefore recommended that all the agencies starting from DIPR, recruiting directorate, SSBs to training establishments be brought under centralized control of ARTRAC for better coordination, control and utilization of resources.”

Closing Notes

Maj. Gen. Anil Sengar, ex-ADGMF, and ex-GOC Inf Div and Military Author, best summarised the need for mandatory PT and tied it with the recent mass relegations “The failure of 13 LCs in OTA triggered an ‘Amphan’ in a teacup.

Ill-informed opinions were expressed, some surmising vengeance and others the Supreme Court judgment on the Lady Officers in terms of the raised physical standards, none of which is true. These cadets failed the tests based on existing standards.”

“This brings us to the question whether some standards of physical fitness test need to be introduced during the SSB selection board. The simple point is, experience shows that if a cadet was physically weak at the time of joining the academy, s/he generally remained so all through her/his career. In the academy, cadets are young, and at their fittest."

If a cadet is passed as ‘mercy’ favour, or ‘supper night’ in the academy parlance, s/he will remain a liability all her/his service which the army can ill-afford. I strongly believe a physical test should be introduced in the SSB for all entries and all cadets.

Those who do not pass need to be withdrawn. If they cannot pass now, they never, ever will and an officer cannot lead unless s/he can look her/his men in the eye.” said the retired General before signing off.


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