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The trouble with recruitment to the Indian armed forces is this: it demands medical fitness, but your fitness may depend on someone’s whim

A job in the armed forces is not just another career. ‘It is governed by certain core values of loyalty, duty, respect, service, honour, integrity and courage, but as warriors... whether on the job or off’ according to a note for aspiring fighter pilots on the Indian Air Force website. Documents in the possession of Open, however, have another story to tell of the way India recruits its young warriors.

It is a sordid story of how processes laid down by the rule book have been flouted to favour some candidates over others, how fitness clearances were fixed, and how merit has become the first casualty of this private battle against integrity. That the forces have failed to attract Indian youngsters in recent years is not news. As Defence Minister AK Antony has reported in writing to Parliament, India’s Army, Navy and Air Force are short of 10,000 officers. In response, the Government has launched media campaigns and held recruitment rallies to avert a personnel crisis. But since it does not address the mess in how people are recruited, none of it will make a difference.

How the system ought to work is laid down in detail. After clearing a written examination and interview, every candidate has to go through a set of physical fitness tests for final eligibility as an officer in the forces. According to Letter No: 76054/policy/ DGMS-5A dated 20 December 2000 of the Government, this is the medical examination process:

First, the Special Medical Board (SMB) examines the candidate’s suitability on medical parameters and assesses if s/he will be able to carry out her/his duty. It is usually held at Army hospitals in Allahabad and Bhopal. If deemed fit, the candidate is recruited. If the SMB declares a candidate unfit, s/he has the right to appeal within 42 days of the results’ announcement to the Appeal Medical Board (AMB), which relooks at cases, especially to see if the cause for rejection is temporary and/or curable through treatment, surgery or other means. If this board declares the candidate fit, s/he is recruited.

If not, a final appeal may be made within 24 hours of the result to the Review Medical Board (RMB), though whether the case will be taken up is entirely at the discretion of the director general of the Armed Forces Medical Services (DG-AFMS). As the Army website makes clear, the candidate may ‘challenge the proceedings and may be granted review of medical proceedings based on the merit of the case... The application for RMB is routed through DG AFMS. The decision for grant of RMB is with DG AFMS, and is not a matter of right’. An appeal for an RMB review can be made only once. And this Board does not reopen any case. If it rejects a candidate’s appeal, its decision is final. If it overturns the AMB’s ruling, s/he is recruited.

The rules seem clear but leave enough space for manipulation, as documents with Open show.

Consider the case of Sachin Kashyap. He applied for a job in the technical graduate category. The SMB declared him unfit and so did the AMB. But, in July 2012, he was issued an appointment letter even before his RMB result was announced. The result, out on 6 August 2012, declared him unfit for being overweight.

That should have been the end of Kashyap’s bid for a job with the forces. But some recruiters seemed particularly keen to select him. In a clear violation of rules, he was granted another RMB hearing by the incumbent DG AFMC Air Marshal Dr DP Joshi, and was declared fit on 14 September 2012.

Every year, 200-250 candidates are allowed RMB hearings to join as officers, of which only about a fifth are finally deemed fit. Kashyap’s is perhaps one of the few cases of a second-round RMB. Why it was allowed remains a mystery. Another case of a candidate being allowed to apply twice for an RMB is that of Pankaj Mehra. He had applied to the forces under its Technical Entry Scheme. His first appeal for an RMB was rejected by the then DG-AFMS Lieutenant General HL Kakriya on 14 June 2012, but was allowed a second chance to appeal by Air Marshal DP Joshi on 20 July 2012 soon after the latter took over as DG-AFMS. The second time round, Mehra was declared fit for service.

The case of Sahil Beniwal is even more shocking. He applied under the forces’ University Entry Scheme and was issued a letter declaring him unfit by the RMB under Lieutenant General Kakriya as he was found to be a patient of congenital hernia. This was decided on 7 March 2012 and the rejection letter clearly states that the ‘decision is final.’ But Beniwal’s papers were summoned by Air Marshal Joshi, who granted him another RMB review that declared him fit more than half a year later on 26 September 2012.

Under the rules, if the candidate applies afresh, he must undergo an SMB test and then appeal if need be to the AMB before submitting an RMB application. But Beniwal did not need to apply again. The rules were cast aside for his fitness to be okayed at the top level. Reacting to this case, a senior functionary in the Union Defence Ministry says that the entire process “should be deemed null and void”.

The fitness regime is used the other way round as well—to throw people out of the forces. Consider the case of Eilakya KC. Eilakya KC applied for a job with the Military Nursing Service and was declared unfit by the SMB. She appealed to the AMB, which declared her fit, and was duly issued an appointment letter on14 September 2009 and asked to report to the Air Force Hospital in Kanpur. However, after a routine check-up detected a fitness problem, she was asked to undergo an RMB review—despite having already been recruited. The review found Eilakya to have a hearing impairment and she was dismissed from service.

According to service rules, the dismissal of an officer on fitness grounds must follow a multi-step process. First, s/he is asked to undergo an Invalidating Medical Board (IMB) examination, which rates the officer’s fitness on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 being top-level fitness) on five counts of SHAPE: Psychological (health), Hearing, Appendages, Physical and Eyesight. If the IMB finds a serving officer unfit for duty, s/he is sent a notice and gets 15 days to respond. The file with this response is sent to the Minister of State for Defence at the Centre, who takes a final call based on all these documents.

No such process was followed for Eilakya before she was thrown out of the armed forces in December 2009. In her letter of explanation in response to the IMB’s notice, she had stated that a ‘civil’ ENT ‘specialist’ had diagnosed hers as a case of Meniere’s disease, which would be ‘cured’ in three months. The final report in the file, signed by DGMS Deputy Director Meena Kumari Kumar, however, had twisted a few facts that weakened Eilakya’s explanation: ‘A private ENT specialist [and not civil] has informed her that she is suffering from Meniere’s disease and her hearing will ‘improve’ [instead of cured] within 3 months.’

As a study in contrast, consider the case of GR Janaki, who in October 2008 was found unfit by the SMB on account of Atelectasis Tympanic Membranes in both ears. She was later deemed fit by an AMB review conducted on 10 November 2008 and was appointed to her job in Mumbai at the Indian Navy Hydrographic Department in January 2009. On reporting for duty, like Eilakya, she was subjected to re-examination and found unfit (for ‘mild conductive hearing loss’) in February 2009. Unlike Eilakya, however, she was declared medically fit after an RMB—again, oddly, instead of an IMB—review conducted in March 2009, and was allowed to keep her job.

The office of Air Marshal Joshi did not respond to Open’s queries on the above irregularities. Speaking anonymously in the AFMS’s defence, a brigadier-rank officer attributes all the RMB re-reviews to the director general’s discretion and argues that since this body only conducts medical tests, such queries should be put to candidate selectors. The brigadier directs me to Major General SL Narasimhan, additional director general of public information in the Ministry of Defence. According to Major General Narasimhan, the five cases in question have already been brought to the Ministry’s notice. To establish as much, a major-rank officer in his office shows me an explanatory note dated 14 June 2013; it tabulates SMB, AMB and RMB examination dates of the five candidates.

However, they have no reply to my specific query—of why second RMB reviews were granted at all. The major general departs for another meeting. The major calls RMB re-reviews ‘untenable’ and declines any further comment.

The fraudulently appointed candidates, meanwhile, are under training at Indian Military Academy, Dehradun, and Officers’ Training Academy, Gaya. They have not responded to Open’s questions despite messages being dropped for them at their academies.