After registering a low turnout in the last session, the National Defence Academy at Khadakvasla is expecting one of its largest turnouts this time. Three hundred and sixty eight new cadets have already reported for the current term. As letters of intimation are sent by post and take time to reach the selected candidates, the fresh termers's entry is spaced out over a two-week period and the NDA expects 400 plus new cadets in all.
"There are shortages in the services no doubt, but there are no shortages in the NDA," says Air Marshal Tejbir Singh Randhawa, the commandant of the academy. In a detailed conversation with Archana Masih, the air marshal discusses how the armed forces still score highly when it comes to respect and integrity, why the middle class is not opting for a career in the defence services and why he tells his cadets to make all their mistakes at NDA because "here those mistakes are worth a shout, but at war, they would lose lives."
Fewer young people seem to want a career in the armed forces -- the salaries officers receive is one reason why they don't find it attractive. Moreover, the Sixth Pay Commission hasn't brought much hope. What message would you have for a young man who would perhaps prefer to join a BPO because of a better pay than the armed forces?
We have to await the award of the Pay Commission before we can comment. But I am sure that the government is apprised of the shortages that are happening. I am also convinced that the government will not allow such a large gap to exist between the corporate world and government employees.
There is no equivalent between a BPO job or equivalent job opportunity and the armed forces. What they are doing is a 9 to 5 job or a 5 to 9 job, I don't know which. They are working for somebody else; we work to protect the nation. We work as much if not more than what they do on a daily basis.
We have no productivity levels to show for ourselves, where does the nation assess us as far as results are concerned? Look at Kargil, '71, '65, '48 -- four important wars that this nation has fought and every time we've won. It does not come by equating my job content with a BPO or comparing me with a production unit.
The result of my hard work is evident only when the nation needs me. The containing of insurgencies is done by the armed forces. Why is it that everybody runs to the armed forces in times of a natural calamity? Doesn't a nation as strong as ours be able to cater for itself without calling the armed forces out? I believe we are the ones called out to do every difficult task for the nation.
There is no denying that the armed forces has tremendous goodwill, but maybe love for the country is not enough? The youth want lucrative jobs and higher salaries steers them away from a career in the armed forces, even though they may think it's far more respectable.
Many a career option have opened up for the youth, therefore they are seeking so many of them. Maybe the youth of the country is very fond of easy living. You can take a loan and buy whatever you want provided you have a collateral somewhere in line. Life in the armed forces is tough, it is difficult and in peace time it is more difficult than in war.
At least in war you have a clear aim in front of you, you know what you are going to do. In peace time you are called out to do everything else that somebody else is supposed to do and we perform very well.
We go through a lot of hardships that other brethren in the country normally don't. While, of course, today's officer realises that money is important because if inflation is hitting a high it affects everyone's pocket.
Even boys who sit for the NDA exam, many of them take other entrance exams as well and probably have the armed forces as option 3 or 4 while the top slots would be say an MBA or an IT job. Why is the middle class not opting for a military career here like it used to do before?
The middle class is the one that wants to lead the easiest life. They are aware of the hardship in the armed forces and have pushed it down the spectrum. Their choices are probably made by maximum money. So when he is making a choice between an MBA and the armed forces, he sees he is going to get paid much more if he works for 24 hours after an MBA than he would for 24 hours of work in the armed forces.
Obviously, it will be the first choice. Probably if work ethos and emoluments get closer and match, the armed forces then become the choice amongst many other options that fall in the same category. It has to do with money, with time spent and the degree of difficulty.
Look at the options available to youngsters, they will choose options that suit their personality best. The only people who become officers of the armed forces are those who are capable of doing what the armed forces wants them to do. In a BPO you may walk in and get a job, but in the NDA you sit for 300 vacancies for which 3 lakh (300,000) people appear.
We are here to provide military leadership to the Indian armed forces and believe me, we do that well.
Are you attracting the same quality of cadets as you did before?
Quality is a very figurative word. When I was in school, we had definite games periods and definite study periods. There are schools in this country that have no sporting facility at all. Parents insist that their kids get good grades in school and for that you have to study for a long time and because of this they don't get time play. I was playing a sport a day before I joined the NDA, this cadet hasn't played a sport for three years before he joined the NDA. Of course,there is going to be a difference.
But he comes with a 10+2 education. I came with a Cass X, so there are advantages and disadvantages.
You recently visited military training academies in the US, how do our training methods compare to theirs?
Our physical training is more intense than theirs. They start with a certain advantage because they are a sporting nation compared to ours,but taking a common baseline between them and us -- our physical training is more intense. The standards that we achieve in three years are more stringent.
We both have different standards and the methodology adopted by them and us is different. We had cadets from Annapolis and West Point (the US naval and army academies respectively visitng us who said that our physical standards are more difficult.
The real danger that we face today is terrorism, where the enemy is largely unknown and unseen. How are we training our cadets for this enemy?
We do very little of that training here. That training is a forte of the finishing academies. Most of the training against counter insurgency and counter terrorism is done at the Indian Military Academy. We have included this in what we call the foundation course, so theoretical knowledge is given to them, of how the whole system functions. The concept about fighting such terrorism and insurgency is taught to them but the practical training is done at the training academies. The foundation course combines a lot of common service subjects.
Have there been any changes in training methods in recent times or is it following the traditional way?
The norms that we need top achieve in this academy have not changed over a very long period. The last time a few changes were made was in 1993. Of course, there have been changes in the academic curriculum. Almost 70 to 75 per cent of total training time is devoted towards academics.
There is a large segment of knowledge being imparted to cadets both from purely academic point of view, apart from service training, which forms part of the academic syllabus to ensure they have the depth of knowledge to tackle all the technologies they see in the future.
The bulk of service training is at the finishing academies but they receive some basic training here.
What changes have come in during your tenure?
I introduced excellence training that gives the cadets an option of improving at every level. In any university if you pass all your subjects, you pass but at NDA if you pass all your subjects and don't get a cumulative grade point average of 3.0, you fail. You have to repeat the semester.
This is after he does all the physical activity, while in university you don't have physical activity, you go to college and come back and do what you want to. If you look at the kind of physical activity he goes through and the higher grade that he is supposed to achieve just to be able to pass a semester is far tougher than the universities.
As academic graduates -- I am not talking about individuals I am talking of a group -- as a group, these cadets are far more superior than what the universities produce.
On the physical aspect too, I want them to be well above the base level. With 1,800 cadets, we have cadets who are good and others who are not as good, but while I am meeting the minimum standards that I've been asked to achieve, we in the NDA achieve standards that are much higher.
We have shifted the focus to excellence training rather than meeting the basics. The number of cadets who are going above the base level is increasing term after term. This has a cascading affect.
The impression is that it is the IMA which defines a soldier, how does the NDA change a cadet? What role does it have vis a vis the IMA?
We make him into an officer. There is no comparison between what NDA and IMA do? The NDA takes a raw product and make an officer material out of it. We teach him character training, physical fitness. Whatever we teach him gets complemented at the finishing academies. We teach him the service way of life and a very important thing we teach him is character building so that it can be moulded into the ethos of the Indian armed forces.
In all the surveys that I have read in this country is that as far as honesty and integrity are concerned, the Indian armed forces always rates the top. How does that come about? It doesn't come about at the finishing academies, we start it here at the NDA. We teach him how to behave as an officer and as a gentleman.
We pride ourselves in being able to produce military leaders for the armed forces. In upper echelons of the armed forces, except for one chief of air staff and one army commander equivalent in the navy, everybody else is an alumni. So we are looking at very large numbers of leaders produced from the NDA.
Our motto is 'Cradle of military leadership' and I want to add a line it -- 'Leadership with integrity.'
Which is even more important in today's times.
Character building is one of our basic concepts. The difference between training here and at the IMA is that we produce leaders and give it to them. They hone those leadership skills in the direction they want them to move. While an army officer will have to lead 100s of men into war, the air force officer fights that war himself. These leadership activities are honed in different spheres of activity, at different levels for different services. They all go from here so we give them the tenants of that leadership.
Our job here is to train leaders. I keep telling my cadets, make all your mistakes here because here your mistake are worth a shout, but at war, you will lose lives.
You mentioned earlier that most officers from the upper echelons of the armed forces are from the NDA. What is the difference between officers from the NDA and IMA and other training academies?
I can only give you my personal perceptions because I don't know if any studies of this nature have been done. I believe it is only in the initial few years of service that this difference can ever be identified. Approximately after five years or so in the services, it becomes very difficult to make out whether they are from the NDA or not. Because the in service training that is done ensures that everyone is brought to the same level of expertise. Then differentiating them becomes very difficult.
This is definitely not to say that those not from the NDA are not good, of course they are very good, that's why they are there. My own chief (Air Chief Marshal Fali H Major) is not an alumni but he is a very respected individual as an aviator and as a leader. It's not about differentiating but we give a very large percentage of top military leadership to the nation.
Photograph: Archana Masih