Travel safe, did I say? I must amend that statement, based on my last flying experience in the beginning of March this year when I had to rush from Delhi to Mumbai on urgent business. The journey to Mumbai was pretty uneventful, since I managed to secure a train ticket. But the journey back to Delhi was a memorable one as we spent more than 40 minutes up in the sky, tossing and turning as you would on a bumpy road chequered with ruts, cracks and potholes. We, the passengers, clutched our seatbelts, remembered our loved ones (given the long saga of air crashes that took place in the last two years) and thanked the crew heartily for their good work when we finally landed.
Back home, I was still mulling over their extraordinary feat when the popular media across the country literally sent shockwaves down our spines by proclaiming that some of the pilots up there and in charge of thousands of lives are not pilots at all, but acquired CPLs (Commercial Pilot’s Licence) with the help of forged papers. Worse still, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) seems to be partially involved in the racket and some of the top officials have actually handed out ATPLs (Airline Transport Pilot’s Licence), required by pilots to become captains or commanders at airlines.
The power behind the scam
That passengers are being flown by semi-trained professionals, hired by airlines bosses who are seemingly aware of such fraudulent practices, exposes yet another ugly face of corruption. But it also brings to the forefront a familiar issue: You can buy most things, even qualifications for highly skilled jobs, if you are ready to pay the price while the regulatory body is only too ready to look the other way.
Delhi police have already arrested Pradeep Kumar, an assistant director in the Directorate of Aircraft Engineering, for his alleged role in the fake pilot scam. The arrest came following the interrogation of J. K. Verma, an Air India pilot who was taken into custody on March 12 after the DGCA filed a complaint that he used fake mark sheets to obtain the ATPL licence. Verma, who had been flying with the national carrier since 1989, told the police that he paid Rs 12 lakh to people with links to the DGCA who, subsequently, arranged for his ATPL.
The ring leader, however, has been identified as one Pradeep Tyagi who not only holds a fake licence, but allegedly helps several others to get fake certificates. Pradeep Kumar, on the other hand, used to ensure that there was no hitch in file movements.
However, this is only the tip of the iceberg and in April this year, DGCA director (for air safety) R.S. Passi was relieved of his duties, pending the probe into his daughter who allegedly procured a fake pilot licence. Passi’s daughter Garima left SpiceJet last month following allegations of acquiring a pilot’s licence under ‘extraordinary circumstances.’ It had been found that Garima failed to clear a flight test in the USA, but still worked for the Indian carrier as a ‘licensed’ pilot. Incidentally, it is the same air carrier that had sponsored Garima Paasi for her US stint, but denied any knowledge of her training failure there. Besides R.S. Passi, at least 8-10 key DGCA officials are right now under the spotlight for their alleged involvement in the fake licence scam.
Probed, Grounded, Arrested
The scam came to light for the first time in January this year when IndiGo pilot Captain Parminder Kaur Gulati landed her packed airliner on the nose, instead of the rear wheels, as she touched down at Goa. The incident raised a hue and cry and the pilot was eventually arrested for flying with falsified qualifications. It turned out that the 38-year-old pilot had similar incidents on her record, but they had been kept from airline regulators.
As the fake pilot saga started to snowball, DGCA went through the documents of more than 4,000 licences and immediately lodged 13 FIRS (First Information Reports) with the crime branch of Delhi Police. While six of them relate to ATPLs, seven FIRs concern records of CPLs. About 4,000 ATPLs and 10,000 CPLs have been issued till date.
As of now, at least 14 pilots, as well as numerous flying school instructors, have been grounded by the DGCA and the number may yet increase from here. On 5 May, two pilots were arrested by Delhi Police on charges of using fake documents to obtain their CPLs. The pilots were identified as Captain Param Prakash and Captain Anirban Sannigrahi.
Currently, three DGCA teams are auditing at least 40 flying schools across the country and the government has already warned that those found guilty of fudging records to grant pilots’ licences can be closed down immediately. Talks are also on to revamp the entire ‘licence raj’ and ensure complete transparency.
Who’s violating your life?
All these efforts may console the hapless passengers for the time being, but the basic question remains. In this country, who gives you the permit to violate rules? Who gives you the licence to disregard the sanctity of human life? Who propagates the pay-and grab mantra, instead of working hard for success? The tainted pilots have been churned out by an equally corrupt system and an oblivious administration that has failed to curb corruption. Unfortunately, no iconic messiah like Anna Hazare can get us out of this death trap unless we start to develop an ethical core.