Now the stench of corruption is in the air

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 March, 2011, 12:00am

I am a pathetic flier. The slightest bit of turbulence has me muttering the clauses I forgot to put in my will and silently saying my goodbyes.

In India, my anxiety levels shoot up even more. Is the pilot the spoilt son of a corrupt politician? Did the doting father bribe an official to get his son a pilot's licence?

Even if the pilot is above board, has his wife just told him she is leaving him for his best friend? Is he an alcoholic who has escaped detection?

I am not sure how things stand on matrimonial discord or alcohol levels among Indian pilots but the lid on bribery in the granting of commercial pilots' licences has been blown open.

It all began when a woman pilot, Parminder Gulati, made a hard landing in Goa that could have endangered passengers. An investigation revealed she had submitted a forged pilot licence examination result.

Gulati had failed the air navigation paper and was absent for the exam on radio aids and instruments. But, after she had handed in forged documents, she was granted a licence and joined a private airline.

Since then, four pilots have been arrested and a total of seven pilots are having their licences scrutinised.

Now the Directorate General of Civil Aviation is investigating 10,000 commercial pilots' licences. In all the muck-raking that has followed Gulati's deception, it appears the rot is deep and wide, with some flying schools lying about the number of hours that students have logged. Even the civil aviation authorities, the only body that can issue licences, is in the dock because its officials either failed to detect forged documents or were paid off.

It has been a nasty few months for Indians. Corruption claims dogged the Commonwealth Games last year, and the government has been rocked by the multibillion-dollar 2G telecoms scandal, in which licences were sold off cheaply.

Corruption has also reared its ugly head in Mumbai where homes meant for war widows were given cheaply to politicians and bureaucrats - and now this.

Friends who used to mock me for worrying about a pilot paying a bribe to get a licence have gone quiet.

Even a public hardened through habit to corruption has been shocked at the idea that they may have been placing their trust in a pilot not knowing that he or she is a cheat and a fraud.

Indians have heard tales of wartime soldiers not being given proper clothes to keep them dry or warm, and of dead soldiers not getting proper coffins because some greedy official settled for substandard goods and pocketed the difference.

They read every day of how their fruit and vegetables have been injected with dangerous chemicals to ripen them faster and preserve them longer. Indians know that spurious drugs are sold over chemists' counters.

But cheating pilots? What next? Doctors forging their exam results to be able to operate on patients?

A sacred trust has been broken with the pilot scandal. A sense of security has been breached. Next time, I'll take the train.

Amrit Dhillon is a freelance writer in New Delhi