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Is your mason or mechanic a woman?

It soon could be. More women than ever are signing up to train as plumbers, electricians and welders across Indian cities.

more lifestyle Updated: Dec 18, 2016 11:37 IST
Roshni Nair
Young women training to be electricians test their skills at the government-run Industrial Training Institute for Girls in Thane.
Young women training to be electricians test their skills at the government-run Industrial Training Institute for Girls in Thane.(Image courtesy UNDP)

In Kerala, women are wielding wrenches and tube-cutters as plumbers. They’re climbing electric poles to check on the wires in Maharashtra. And they’re helping build, as trained masons, in Kashmir.

“We never used to have women training for jobs as electricians and diesel mechanics. Now we do. I am happy about this transformation,” says Lok Pal, principal at the government-run Industrial Training Institute, Pusa, in Delhi. “A major change has been the admission of girls and women in the auto body paint and repair course. This was an all-boys class until this year’s batch, now has two girl students. The electrician course too, which had two or three girls in previous batches, has six girls this time.”

When the huge employment opportunity in mechanical trade became obvious, girls started taking admission in these courses, Pal says. “This trend is great for industry as well. It is helping bridge the gender gap.”

At ITIs across the country, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is supporting women mechanical traders through agreements it has signed with multinational companies such as Siemens, Hida Japan and Maruti Suzuki for training and campus placements of its woman students.

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Kirti Singh, 21, for instance, was one of nine girls in a class of 40, studying automobile mechanics at ITI Pusa. She went on to specialise in diesel automobiles and, with a little help from the UNDP, is now working in a Maruti Suzuki automobile dealership in Okhla. Of 18 service advisors there, she is the only woman.

“People tried to discourage me throughout my course but I persevered,” she says. “Studies were easy compared to the demotivation I faced from everyone — family, friends, neighbours. But I am happy to be a woman employee in a male field. If women can fly airplanes, why can’t they be in the automobile sector?”

GROWING GIRL POWER

In November, the Directorate of Vocational Education and Training (DVET) released data pointing to a 30% to 50% increase in women enrolments in male-dominated courses across ITIs in Maharashtra. There’s been a similar rise in the number of vehicle mechanics in Tamil Nadu, and electricians in UP and Delhi (see box).

For some, it is a gesture of defiance.

“Girls do not lag behind boys in any respect,” says Zenab Zargar, 21, a student of masonry from Bhaderwah in Jammu & Kashmir.

She is one of four girls in a class of 40 at the ITI in her town.

“I’m also pursuing a BA long-distance,” she says. “But we’re a big family. I have three brothers and a sister. I want to earn and help support my family and I want to do it in a way that will be different. In our area, no girl has done masonry. My uncle, a teacher at another ITI in Jammu & Kashmir, advised me to take up this course.”

Her course has involved designing and building cement walls and constructing gates. “It’s hard, manual work, but we have done it all and we enjoy it,” she says.

“Our exams did not happen this year due to the tension in the Valley, but I am hopeful of taking getting my certificate in masonry next year, after which I plan to work my way up to a job as block supervisor in the state public works department.”

Zenab Zargar, 21, says she wants to earn a living and help support her family, and she wants to do it in a way will be different. That’s why she’s studying masonry at the ITI in Bhaderwah, Jammu & Kashmir.

The tone of the conversation is similar at the ITI for Girls in Thane, Greater Mumbai, where 21 girls have signed up for the electrician course.

“My father wanted me to join the Army and didn’t like it that I want to become an electrician because it’s ‘a boy’s job’. I told him, ‘The army is mostly boys too. You’re not making any sense’,” says 17-year-old Yogita Patil, inducing titters from classmates. “I always wanted to do something about the fact that my village, Dabad, has no electrician. We have to travel miles if there’s a short circuit or if appliances break down.”

For others, it’s about filling gaps in the market.

“My husband was unable to work because of a serious illness, so I had to do something,” says Vasantha Kumari one of seven women graduates from India’s first computerised plumbing course at Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, Kerala. “Plumbing is a good opportunity because so many of our husbands and sons are in the Gulf, there’s a shortage of skilled labour. Now us women can be financially secure and stop calling on men to fix things,” she adds, laughing.

Kumari, 53, completed the three-month course in 2012 and now attends to home, hotel, school, and hospital calls.

She and three others from her village of Thodiyoor would take a boat across the backwaters to Vallikavu, some 13km away, for their classes. “I think women plumbers do a more thorough job. Still, there are times people bargain to pay us less just because we are ladies. It’s important that we don’t give in,” she says.

Pay disparity is one of the ways in which discrimination rears its head. It’s why Kottayam-based Archana Women’s Centre (AWC) joined hands with Kudumbashree, the Kerala government’s empowerment drive for less-privileged women. Together, AWC and Kudumbashree Constructions have trained 230 women as plumbers, masons, electricians and supervisors to ensure that they aren’t confined to the lowest rungs of the construction industry.

PUBLIC VERSUS PRIVATE

Will women in these male bastions be picked for non-government jobs?

“I’ve yet to come across an independent contractor in a city who hires women graduates in masonry, plumbing or electric work,” says Kolkata-based contractor Christopher Alvares, who has 30 years’ experience working in Delhi, Panaji, Bengaluru and Mumbai. “Women in this line are on two ends of a spectrum: either interior designers or masonry helpers. The helpers are preferred for waterproofing and joint filling because their workmanship is neater. Yet they’re paid half of what male helpers are paid.”

Public sector undertakings (PSUs) are major employers for women in non-conventional trades, says Yogesh Patil, deputy director of the DVET. Here’s why the Maharashtra State Electricity Distribution Company (MahaDisCom) is top pick for women electricians: it has an all-women squad, Damini Pathak, to handle meter tampering complaints, and 2,225 (and counting) lineswomen on a total line force of 7,000.

“Railways, ordnance factories, municipal corporations and state- or nationally-owned manufacturing and utility firms also have more women welders, mechanics, and turners,” Patil elaborates. “This is because of the 30% reservation for women, which is an incentive for rural girls to enroll in offbeat courses.” But that’s not to write off the private sector, he clarifies, naming Godrej, Tata Motors, Bosch and Maruti among recruiters of trained women mechanics.

Jaideep Kadian, principal of ITI Rohtak in Haryana, says the automotive sector — specifically Hero Honda and Maruti — has started employing women fitters and turners too. “Nearly half our turner course consists of girls, which wasn’t the case two or three years ago. Recruiters are happy because they feel women are more disciplined, punctual and sincere,” he says.

In the ongoing project by United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and JSL Lifestyle, 180 women from Rohtak, Haryana, are being trained to work at the local steel plant.

“Quality controllers and machine operators are typically ‘masculine’ jobs because they are physically demanding. But there’s nothing these women can’t do,” says Clement Chauvet, chief of skill and business development at UNDP India. “We’ve also formed ‘Skill Sakhis’ [Sakhi is Hindi for Friend’] in Maharashtra, and similar initiatives in Karnataka, Telangana, and NCR to mobilise rural women into similar non-conventional trades.”

The tide is turning — albeit gradually — in the logistics sector too. Think women forklift operators, pickers, packers, loaders and warehouse supervisors.

“We have 10 female forklift drivers at our plant in Chakan, Pune and want to increase this number to 100-plus in the western zone, NCR and Bangalore combined,” says Pirojshaw Sarkari, CEO of Mahindra Logistics. “While we have gender diversity in our offices, it’s also important to break the barrier in traditionally male-dominated verticals and give equal opportunities for women from lower income groups.”

(With inputs from Gayatri Belpathak)