The Services Selection Boards (SSBs) function as per the technical directives, guidelines and instructions of the Defence Institute of Psychological Research (DIPR) based at Delhi. All the key selectors—Group Testing Officer (GTO), Interviewing Officer (IO) and Technical Officer (TO)—are trained at the DIPR and strictly follow its norms and selection methodology.
However, there is a high degree of subjectivity in the entire selection process, particularly for the tests conducted by the GTOs and IOs. The Psychological tests conducted by the TOs are to some extent objective and subject to some scrutiny/check as the answers of the candidates are well documented. The Physical Testing system/components comprise the ‘Individual Obstacle Course’ and ‘Team Obstacle Race’. Both these tests are outdoor/field tests and do give candidates a fair opportunity to display their physical prowess.
However, these tests too have a great degree of subjectivity as the GTOs are basically assessing candidates for their overall ‘Officer Like Qualities’/‘Leadership Traits’ keeping the ‘physical fitness factor’ as one of the qualities/traits. Hence in the overall analysis, it is evident that the entire selection system of candidates is generally ‘subjective’; even for the vital ‘physical fitness factor’, which subsequently becomes a most ‘crucial factor’ for the trainees not only for coping with the heavy physical demands that are made on them, but even a matter of their very ‘survival’, particularly in the NDA.
Hence, the present selection of the candidates at our SSBs is based on two key factors of ‘trainability’ and ‘potentiality’—particularly for the NDA, wherein a great consideration/leeway in these two key factors is given due to the longer (4 years) training period vis-à-vis other officer entries with a shorter (12–18 months) training period. The negative fallout of this inherent drawback is that the ‘physically weak’ candidates which are cleared by the SSBs particularly for the NDA are unable to meet the high physical doses given to them, violating all the scientific principles of physical training and fitness/sports medicine.
This results in a high attrition /wastage rate and becomes a great loss to the candidates/trainees and consequently to the services and the nation. Although the SSBs have no control over the training methodology at the academies including the NDA, it would be prudent to study and analyse how the ‘trainability’ and ‘potentiality’ factors of selection are actually implemented and translated for the selected candidates during their training and grooming, particularly at the NDA.
The aim of this article is to suggest a slightly modified SSB selection system incorporating some transparency/objectivity in the selection, particularly for the key ‘physical fitness’ factor, in order to improve the overall fitness level of the candidates/trainees and also consequently reduce the wastage/attrition rate in the academies.
The Screening Test at the SSBs
The screening tests at the SSBs are conducted on the first day of the selection wherein 60–70% of the candidates are screened out within a matter of 2–3 hrs without giving a hint to them regarding their rejection. This is most unfortunate as the candidates who have been preparing for the past one year or more find their dreams shattered within this brief two-hour period involving only a Psychological Test and Group Discussion with little/no objectivity or transparency.
Although the SSBs and the DIPR realise and know fully well that this is a most unjust/unfair system, from the candidate’s point of view, they have done little to correct/address this flaw for the past many years, which is most unfortunate. The argument repeatedly being put forth by the SSBs/DIPR that they do not have an adequate staff for testing all the candidates for the full 4–5 days period, is neither convincing nor justified and invariably leaves the unfortunate/screened out candidates always wondering about our obsolete/outdated selection methodology, which is still prevalent in this twenty-firstcentury era.
Hence, there is an inevitable need to immediately correct this major lacuna/flaw which continues to bring disrepute to our selection norms/system, especially the ‘screening test’.
The Physical Fitness Component
A study of the SSBs’ ‘physical fitness component’ in the selection of candidates reveals that there is a great degree of subjectivity in the present selection norms. The ‘individual obstacle course’ and ‘team obstacle race’ are basically subjective tests which aim at assessing the leadership traits/officer-like qualities from the ‘trainability/potentiality’ point of view. They are not held as an objective, fixed-standard or mandatory test as is being done for the soldiers.
It is pertinent to mention that although the point of the mandatory physical tests at the SSBs has been taken up by the Army on numerous occasions, the SSBs /DIPR have not even found it fit to discuss the same, let alone its implementation. The plea being repeatedly offered is that the better candidates will be left out. The screening out of 60–70% of the candidates during the screening of most batches/entries has also been eliminating many deserving candidates for the past many years and nothing has been done to rectify it.
The Obstacle Test at the SSBs
Obstacle tests at the SSBs comprising ‘individual obstacle course’ and ‘team obstacle race’ are not suitable or befitting from the candidates’ point of view, as firstly, the majority of the candidates are not physically conditioned/geared up and therefore unfit/unsuitable to negotiate these obstacles, which they have not even seen during their school/college days. Hence, if the candidates have to perforce undergo these obstacle tests, they must first undergo a basic physical ‘screening test’ during the scheduled screening test wherein 60–70% are already being screened out.
The screening test can be those very tests which are being held by the academies for the novices on joining. These involve a 1.6 km run, chin-ups, sit-ups, 100 metre sprint, etc. This will enable scientific/progressive physical testing, reduce injuries, bring some objectivity to the selection system and enable the selection of more suitable and physically better conditioned candidates.
The SSB selection system has been in vogue for the past many years has a great degree of subjectivity in its selection. The introduction of a ‘screening test’ forced upon the selectors due to factors beyond their control has been most unfair to the majority of the candidates who are continually rejected. The candidates appearing for the mandatory obstacle tests are neither physically prepared nor familiar with the obstacles.
Their physical fitness level is also generally low as the majority come from non-military backgrounds and average schools and families. The obstacle course as a subject of PT is taught to the soldiers and officer trainees much later in their long-duration training after they have completed their basic physical training and are fit to negotiate these obstacles. Hence, it would only be prudent to introduce the basic physical tests in the screening tests of the SSBs to enable fit/suitable candidates to appear for the full selection of 4–5 days involving the individual obstacle course and the obstacle team race.
This would also ensure that the candidates come well-prepared physically and make sincere efforts not to be screened out in the objective physical tests. This will also consequently raise the overall fitness levels of the selected candidates joining the academies thereby reducing their attrition/wastage rates.
Cdr Mukund Yeolekar (Retd)
I agree that the screening test for the candidates appearing for the SSB is a little unfair. This was introduced during the nineties because the number of candidates was very high and the SSBs had to perforce eliminate almost two-thirds of most of the batches so that the remaining strength was manageable for the five days’ detailed selection procedure.
To make the physical assessment fair and more objective, I agree with the suggestion that a common test of Endurance Run and Push-Ups be conducted. However, I think that the SSBs’ the main aim is to check that the candidate has a fair amount of Agility and is fit enough to do basic training activities.
The candidate’s motivation and determination to cross obstacles is more important than his actual ability of physically clearing them. This has to be ascertained by the GTO and regarded as a subjective attribute. The candidate may not be familiar with the obstacle course and hence should be given the benefit if he sincerely tries to clear them.
Most important, he should be fit and not have any visible disability in carrying out physical tasks. By his apparent fitness, a GTO can judge whether he is trainable and has the potential to endure physical hardships. The GTO’s judgement will further get verified during the Medical Examination when any limitation to his physical ability will get detected.
The process of selection is in accordance with the DIPR directives/guidelines and has been in vogue for decades. There must be a mechanism for the SSB Centre/DIPR to obtain a feedback of the cadets’ performance, especially after the first two terms at the NDA. This feedback is essential for any Research Agency to do a causative analysis and finetune their selection guidelines for initiating improvement.
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(This article first appeared in the book 'A Campaign Called Victory India' by Colonel Vinay B Dalvi (Retd) and published by Pentagon Press LLP. The essay has been reproduced as part of Mission Victory India's online archival efforts)