Some years ago, a Tehelka journalist suffered jail for trying to expose the corruption within the civil aviation establishment. Today, that’s unlikely to happen. There’s a lot more than meets the eye in the matter of fake pilot licences and the media must ask deeper questions about the goings-on in the civil aviation departments
No reportage on the fake pilot certification and licensing scam can be really honest and legitimate if it, in the first instance, does not salute and acknowledge the stellar role played by Outlook and subsequently Tehelka journalist Kumar Badal in exposing this whole business of corruption and decay in the rancid and putrid mess that is called the Directorate General of Civil Aviation or DGCA. This was in the course of 2003 and 2004, and if people are under the impression that forgery and fraud in the civil aviation sector is a new phenomenon, then they are really living in la-la land.
For his efforts in this sting-among others-poor Mr Badal had to spend six months and then some more in jail and is still, from all accounts, battling the after-effects. One dared not speak against the establishment too much, even as recently as seven-eight years ago; the establishment simply trampled over you; that was the message then. But in this day and age, we can stand outside DGCA (less than two km from where I live, which is important, as the rest of this article will reveal), and bay for the blood of the corrupt, and all they (DGCA) can do is to request people not to panic!
There is no credibility with anybody at DGCA-from the security guard outside, to the highest authorities inside-to now pretend that they did not know what has been going on for decades. The fact that licences could be bought and exams passed without even being present has been the case since at least the late 70s, and I can vouch for this. That worse things happens in other aspects of DGCA's work, is also a fact, which people like Capt Gopinath of Deccan Aviation have mentioned more than once.
As a part-time hobby motoring correspondent, who also flew a lot in connection with my day job, I often wondered about the relative safety between travelling by road and flying by air, and I considered flying to be safer. Despite airport security officials-who became friends over the years-giving me horror stories on what they knew about skill-sets and capabilities of people in the cockpit, I always discounted their views. There was one account about domestic aviation pilots from certain airlines that compared them to and referred to them as "Blue Line/Red Line drivers", after the colour of their aircraft. Still, I stood up for the inherent safety in our skies.
The tipping point came in, or around 2007/2008, when far too many episodes and incidents in civil aviation were not just brought to my notice, but also involved me as a hapless passenger stuck in a seat somewhere in the airplane.
As background, way back in the late 70s, I had this vision of acquiring certification for land, water and air operations (in the Merchant Navy then, I had a driving licence that enabled me to take part in motorsports too, and I wanted to graduate from gliding to power flying).
I never took the power flying training further, because even in those days the extent of corruption involved was tremendous-fudging logbooks was the least of it. Since I was trying to do this as a hobby, I actually wanted to fly. But it just became too complicated and skewed. The whole system was geared towards fudging logbooks and moving people up the system as rapidly as possible.
So, I learned a wee bit, and then went back to sea. However, the basics of flying, like the basics of sailing and driving/riding, never leave you, and the ABC of flying, which is EFG, and in reverse GFE, is something one always keeps an eye and ear open for.
But there were more than a few who were flying at Delhi's Safdarjung Airport in those years who went on to become qualified and licenced pilots. Some of them are, or were right on top in the airline business. And they are flying planes with you and me onboard, as well as possibly passing judgment on those who have been caught, all the while trying to pass the buck. Which senior person in which airline in India can honestly say that she or he did not know this was happening?
To take this essay further, I was flying a lot as a passenger in the years between 1999 and 2009, the glory years in which India's civil aviation really took off. And I just happened to be on some spectacular cock-ups; the best or worst being the 9W flight, operated by a leading politician's son who later on went on to become a reality television prima donna, which almost went off the smaller runway at Mumbai, and an off-duty IAF pilot was sitting next to me giving me a running commentary all the way down.
I was also at Pune Airport, but not on the aircraft, when his girlfriend, later on wife, and now ex-wife, did an excellent low-level flypast over the runway to the amazement of all present, and then came back to land, only to roll past the point where other airplanes stopped.
I was also on board one of the earlier Airbus-321 flights operated by Indian Airlines, when we had such a hard landing at Delhi that the aircraft was pulled out for weeks after that. And as for my favourites, the small CRJs operated then by Air Sahara, I cannot write enough about some of the cowboys and cowgirls doing their stuff up front, and the major issues with pressurisation and aircraft maintenance, as well as fake spare parts that they reportedly had. It has not been said, but it is known, that the Air Sahara training flight crash at Delhi was due to fake spare parts that caused the rudder to move the other way. It is not just the licences of pilots that are fake, you see?
So, what would you do if the scheduled passenger aircraft you flew on went through some rather dangerous episodes, with you on board? The choices, as one who has been more than an interested air passenger for decades, are broadly in two categories:
1) The aircraft, crew and passengers survive the incident, everybody curses a bit; the passengers soon forget as they shove each other to get off the plane, and the cockpit and cabin crew may or may not make a report about the incident.
2) The aircraft, crew and passengers do not survive the incident, and since dead men and women tell no tales, the episode itself gets buried under mountains of paper and inquiry commission reports that may or may not see the light of day.
In between somewhere are the episodes and incidents where somebody takes things up seriously, by filing a written complaint, or is one of the few people to survive an incident in which many others have died.
Surprisingly, the survivors are usually so glad to be alive, that they simply do not follow up with the airline or the authorities. I personally know two such cases. This is also because "advice" given to them is that they better not make waves, or there could be a big question mark over the compensation due to them. Whether it was the survivors from the Alliance Air crash (in Patna), the Air India Express crash (in Mangalore), the Jet Airways crash (in Indore), or even the old Airbus 320 Indian Airlines crash (in Bangalore), one has not heard of survivors seeking accountability or answers.
Likewise, for survivors of heavy landings or such other incidents, the "system" at the DGCA and the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) is designed to prevent queries, and to provide cover-ups to protect their own-in all cases. There is simply no documented way that you as a passenger can file a complaint, let alone expect a response to a complaint that you have as an individual, or a group of people, against an airline.
The truth is, once again, that the rot in the civil aviation business is totally top down. The only way the MoCA or DGCA can even attempt to try to fix things is by coming clean and admitting that there has been a total garbage-driven decay of the system for decades now, and that they will start looking closely at licences issued not just five years ago, but also at all those who have valid licences issued to them at any time in the past.
After all, why punish only defenceless juniors, when it is much worse at the top? The sanctimonious responses by DGCA officials, hoping against hope that this too shall pass, is not a solution that will work in this day and age.
Because, increasingly, there is no way that the establishment can throw us into jail for taking on the head pigs. And the other animals in the farm and barn are not going to keep quiet this time around. (ref: "Animal Farm")
More than just the specific issue of corruption at DGCA, there is the larger issue that the media has a responsibility-they can and should work better and smarter to change the system. Instead of taking everything that anybody at DGCA (or anywhere else) says as the absolute truth, for example, we need to move out and re-check facts.
For example, how many senior pilots would stand scrutiny of their past record in the same way as the current juniors are being subjected to-it's an issue that got Badal into jail. Of course, that doesn't happen anymore.
And to round off, here is the text of the letter to the editor of Outlook that I wrote eight years ago, in this context, on Kumar Badal being sent to jail:
Kumar Badal's Jail Diary (February 3) captured on one page the essence of being a state guest in India. It would remind people of their experiences with state systems of correction in the days before the Indian media could really adopt freedom and dignity and nobody would have had the guts to even discuss such matters. We pigs may not have rights, we pigs may have to wait silently in queues, but nobody has been able to exterminate us pigs or prevent our piglets from being the most difficult creatures to tame or catch. And some of us pigs will always slip through. —Veeresh Malik, New Delhi (http://188.8.131.52/letters.aspx?379-1-Published-2/17/2003)
The present generation in the media owes us more than just standing outside DGCA without asking deeper questions.
Here are some of the issues related to India that crop up in some US Embassy cables and documents released by WikiLeaks and available on The Hindu news website
Here are some of the issues related to India that crop up in US Embassy cables and documents, that have been released by WikiLeaks, and The Hindu news website has put out over the past fortnight.
"Rahul Gandhi has no future, no talent for politics"
According to statements contained in cables released by WikiLeaks recently, accessed and published by The Hindu, Rahul Gandhi is not future prime ministerial material. For, "the heir-apparent of the Gandhi family dynasty," is said to have made a series of political gaffes in 2007, and party insiders were actually waiting for the entry of his sister Priyanka Gandhi into politics. The cable reports a statement by Nachiketa Kapur, a close associate of Satish Sharma, "Congress leader and Gandhi family insider", on 18 April 2007, that Rahul 'has no future, no talent for politics and will never be PM, as he has done nothing for the past three years.'
Read more: http://www.thehindu.com/news/the-india-cables/article1574319.ece
26/11 terrorist attacks-Grade I evidence
The dossier New Delhi gave to Islamabad on the JuD chief was drawn from the confessions of the 26/11 accused. On 21 August 2009, India handed over a dossier to Pakistan linking Jamat-ud-Dawa (JuD) chief Hafiz Saeed to the Mumbai attacks. The dossier is drawn almost entirely from the confession of the surviving gunman, Ajmal Amir Kasab, and statements by Fahim Ansari and Sabahuddin. The three are accused in the 26/11 Mumbai attacks case. National Security Adviser M K Narayanan described the material in the dossier as "Grade-1 evidence." This implies that the accused should be booked by Pakistan police and extradited to India at the earliest.
Read more: http://www.thehindu.com/news/the-india-cables/article1574314.ece
India withholding information from FBI
The CBI had told the FBI team that "they were only sharing 'what we think you need to know'." The Federal Bureau of Investigation thought Indian requests for information on the IC-814 hijacking were "fishing expeditions", but it was concerned India was withholding information that could affect its own prosecution of the case in the United States. The information the Indian government wanted was listed in two non-papers given to the US Embassy in New Delhi in March and May that year (Cable 29497: confidential, 24 March 2005; 32567: confidential,13 May 2005). The non-papers asked for information relating to the reported seizure of documents about the hijacking by US forces operating in Afghanistan.
Read more: http://www.thehindu.com/news/the-india-cables/article1562668.ece
Sonia Gandhi overly reliant on coterie
The Congress, the US Embassy cabled, had evolved an elaborate culture aimed at protecting the Gandhi dynasty. "Mrs Gandhi's inner circle carefully controls her access to information, and inoculates her from criticism, while her carefully scripted public appearances protect her from making gaffes or missteps. This has the advantage of preserving the 'sanctity' of Mrs Gandhi and the dynasty, but can also complicate her efforts to wield power. This system prevents Mrs Gandhi from asserting herself and reduces her charisma, and makes her overly reliant on a selected group, which may not always have her or the party's best interests at heart." The Gandhis, the cable continued, "remain coy as to which of their many advisors are 'in' and which are 'out', leading to endless speculation, and large numbers of people claiming to be close to the Gandhi family."
Read more: http://www.thehindu.com/news/the-india-cables/article1574328.ece
Ministry of External Affairs split over growing India-US ties
An Indian official is said to have spoken of 'two camps' on the Iran uranium enrichment issue. US Embassy officials viewed this as a typical Indian ploy to assert independence, when in fact they were more likely to have been committed "to solid forward movement with the US" on the Indo-US nuclear deal. India was more keen to appease the Left parties in India than to have closer ties with the US.
Read more: http://www.thehindu.com/news/the-india-cables/article1571785.ece
India US co-operation weak-kneed in Sri Lanka
India-US military cooperation was excellent in tsunami relief, but concerns varied on rebuilding of Palaly airfield. When US troops arrived in Sri Lanka for relief work in the aftermath of the December 2004 tsunami, alarm bells rang in sections of the Indian establishment, media and the strategic community over possible American 'intrusion' in its backyard. But US diplomatic cables at the time, accessed by The Hindu through WikiLeaks, show that the official thinking in the US favoured utilising its military participation in relief efforts to strengthen "military-to-military" cooperation with other participants in the effort, especially India.
Read more: http://www.thehindu.com/news/the-india-cables/article1568870.ece
Send strong signal to Dawood Ibrahim
"We believe the USG [United States government] should send a strong signal of solidarity and zero tolerance by generating a demarche asking the Grand Hyatt in Dubai where the money came from, and how.
''We should also ask the Hyatt corporation in the US how their local franchise could have made such a questionable decision," said a cable from the US Consulate in Mumbai, that has been put out on WikiLeaks. This was put out in the context of the wedding of Dawood Ibrahim's daughter, hosted at the Grand Hyatt in Dubai.
Read more: http://www.thehindu.com/news/the-india-cables/article1565546.ece
Naxalite menace in India
According to one of the cables, "Despite India's rapidly expanding economy, Naxalite groups in poor rural areas and their educated urban sympathisers continue to spread and have extended their areas of influence into 12 states, proving they can launch spectacular attacks on government facilities."
Read more: http://www.thehindu.com/news/the-india-cables/article1565519.ece
Failure to organise Dalits
"Despite the political success of Dalits such as current Minister for Chemicals and Fertilizers Ram Vilas Paswan, Dalits' failure to organize at the national level has limited their ability to demand equal rights. Until the Indian majority increases pressure to change the status quo, many Dalits will remain trapped below the poverty line in manual labor jobs with few mechanisms for upward mobility," says a separate cable from the US Embassy, also released by Wikileaks.
Read more: http://www.thehindu.com/news/the-india-cables/article1568814.ece
P Chidambaram's off-the-cuff remarks on regional development in India
P Chidambaram is said to have told US ambassador Timothy Roemer that India would have registered higher growth rates if the country had comprised only what are now is its southern and western parts. But the home minister praised the chief ministers of Bihar, Orissa and the Punjab, all of them non-Congress leaders. He made these observations when Mr Roemer made an "introductory" call on the minister after arriving in 2009 as successor to David Mulford.
Read more: http://www.thehindu.com/news/the-india-cables/article1565389.ece
Birla Sun Life AMC new issue closes on 29th March
Birla Sun Life Asset Management Company is launching Birla Sun Life Fixed Term Plan-Series CX, a close-ended income scheme.
The scheme seeks to generate income by investing in a portfolio of fixed income securities maturing on or before the duration of the scheme. The scheme will have duration of 371 days from and including the date of allotment.
The issue opens and closes for subscription on 29 March 2011. The minimum investment amount is Rs5,000.
The benchmark index of the scheme is CRISIL Short term Bond Fund Index.