The number of those wanting to join the armed forces has not gone down in the last three years but there is an apparent dip in the number of academically sound candidates, official data has revealed.
According to data available with ThePrint, while the number of applicants for the defence-qualifying exams have remained nearly constant at around four lakhs every six months, those securing the minimum qualifying percentage for the exams — which is just about 38 per cent — have successively dipped in the last three years.
For instance, with similar minimum qualifying percentages in 2017, 2018 and 2019 (for NDA and Naval Academy I) at around 38 per cent, the number of candidates securing the minimum qualifying saw a gradual dip from 8,545 to 8,363 and 7,927 respectively, though the number of applicants remained virtually constant.
Lakhs of candidates appear for the National Defence Academy (NDA) examination and the Combined Defence Services (CDS) examination to join the defence services every year.
While candidates appear for the NDA entrance examination straight after their Class 12 board examinations to join any of the defence services, those appearing for the combined defence examination are graduates.
Written exams for both are conducted by the Union Public Service Commission, which is followed by a Services Selection Board (SSB) interview over five days. There is then a medical examination of the candidates. Those finally selected make it to the officer grade of the armed forces.
According to the data, approximately 4 lakh people had applied for the NDA exams every six months in the last three years, of whom approximately 400 were finally selected, which is 0.1 per cent of the total applicants.
The data for the CDS applicants is similar, where around 200 candidates are approximately selected out of 2 lakh applicants every six months.
The data for the number of candidates who took the examination is not available. It is, however, estimated to be much lower than the number of initial applicants.
According to the data, as many as 4.16 lakh students had applied to join the NDA and Naval Academy in the first exam of 2017, of whom only 371 were finally recommended to the academies. In the second exam of the same year, 3.4 lakh candidates applied, of whom 447 were recommended.
In 2018, applicants for the first exam of the NDA and Naval Academy were 4.5 lakh, of whom 379 were finally recommended. There were 3.4 lakh candidates who applied for the second exam in the same year, of whom 520 were recommended.
In 2019, 4.62 lakh candidates applied for the exams in the first exam of the NDA and the Naval Academy, of whom 447 candidates were recommended. In the second exam of the same year, there were 3.6 lakh applicants. The number of candidates finally recommended is yet to be out.
Similarly, for the CDSE I, 1.8 lakh candidates applied in 2017, of whom 249 were finally recommended, while in the second CDSE in the same year, 244 candidates were finally recommended from 2.6 lakh candidates.
In 2018, 2.6 lakh and 2.3 lakh candidates applied for the exams, of whom 176 and 201 candidates were finally recommended. Similarly, in 2019, the CDSE -I saw 2.4 lakh applicants of whom 291 were finally recommended. The process for CDSE II is yet to be completed.
Dip in the academic quality
While the data doesn’t show an apparent decline in the number of candidates who have been wanting to join the armed forces, the number of candidates qualifying the written examination may raise questions on the lower academic standards of those applying.
For example, the minimum qualifying marks for 2019 set by the UPSC was 342 out of 900, which is 38 per cent.
This too was achieved by only 7,927 candidates out of the 4.62 lakh candidates who had applied for the first test for NDA and Naval Academy in 2019, of which 447 were recommended to the academies.
The mean academic (written) results of the 447 candidates who were finally recommended to NDA/Naval Academy in 2019 is just 44.4 percent.
While the minimum qualifying percentage had remained nearly the same in 2017 and 2018, too, only 8,545 secured it in the NDA and Naval Academy I in 2017 and 8,363 in the same exam in 2018.
Thus with similar qualifying percentages in 2017, 2018 and 2019 (for NDA and Naval Academy I), the number of candidates securing the minimum qualifying saw a gradual dip from 8,545 to 8,363 and 7,927 respectively, though the number of applicants remained constant in lakhs.
A senior Army officer said the data reflects a low success rate. “Out of the number of applicants, not even one fourth could secure the minimum qualifying marks which reflects on the overall academic credentials of the applicants.”
“In today’s Army, a soldier (technical) is required to be a class XII graduate with minimum 50 per cent marks, whereas officer cadets who join NDA have no such minimum criteria,” the officer said, adding that the minimum qualifying percentages have been reduced over a period of time.
A second senior Army officer said that the two exams conducted for NDA in any year, there are several candidates who repeat the exams given that they can appear for the exams four to five times.
“So, the actual number of aspirants over a year might be fewer,” the officer said, adding that this could also be because of a gradual lowering of the status of the armed forces and the steep career prospects in services.
The officer further added that modern warfare demands not just physical strength, but a high level of mental faculties. “Weapon Systems have become extremely technical and accordingly the educational standards of jawans have also been raised. It therefore becomes imperative to have officers of a higher educational calibre to understand the nuances of technology. To this end, the NDA has also been considering upgrading the basic BSc degree given to cadets to one in BTech,” the officer said.
‘Military qualities matter more than mere academic marks’
However, another senior officer from the services said that SSB selection is not only based on academic criteria.
“The SSB’s follow a scientifically established procedure to select candidates who possess and display certain important traits of officer-like qualities, leadership qualities, team work, self confidence, group dynamics and such like which are essential characteristics of a military officer,” the officer said.
“These qualities are not checked by a written exam but by the stringent procedure by trained psychologists and interviewing officers in a SSB. After final selection, the Academies groom the candidates in polishing the raw qualities displayed during selection into what is the final product that is required to lead the second largest armed forces in the world,” the officer added.
Another Army officer said that while the number of candidates clearing the written exam are in thousands, only a limited number of candidates clear the SSB.
“The SSB has got certain stringent standards which they adhere to and thus a limited number of candidates clear the SSB, which at times, leaves the course in the academy under subscribed,” the officer said.
“This is reflective of the scrupulous standards maintained in the selection procedures for joining the academies,” the officer said.