Three smart, young Indian Air Force cadets created history in June this year, when they were formally commissioned as India’s first women fighter pilots – a giant leap for the country’s Armed Forces.
Rewind to 1991. Shalini Sharma had just been given her first posting at a police station in Thane, a small city close to Mumbai. The commissioner at the time, RD Tyagi, gave her a service revolver and asked her to go after a Khalistani terrorist suspected to be hiding in the area.
Women officers, who until then were given “soft” assignments, stopped work and demanded they be given more serious, active assignments like Sharma.
Now, 25 years and a mandatory 33% reservation later, there has been a phenomenal rise in the number of women in the Maharashtra police department.
“And, this has triggered the need to reconsider the role of women in the force,” said a woman deputy commissioner.
“Only with the exception of the Quick Response Team (QRT) and Force One, we have women in every facet of policing these days,” said Deven Bharati, joint commissioner of police, law and order.
Director general of police Pravin Dixit said the participation of women has not only grown in numbers, but also in terms of quality. Women constables go through gruelling physical training to prepare them for tough assignments. “We are now considering their entry into Force One (deployed to ambush and fight terrorists),” Dixit told HT.
The reservation helps, as the department can no longer afford to be choosy while assigning duty to women, say experts. “When women constitute a third of the staff at a police station or any other unit, they will have to do all types of duties. Otherwise, where will the force find replacements?” asked a senior police inspector, not wishing to be named.
Women in the state’s police department may be slowly winning the battle against discrimination in duties but they continue to fight a war – one for basic facilities like toilets and housing, and a chance at a more balanced life.
“There are no separate toilets or changing rooms for women, who often work nights at police stations. Women constables deployed in mobile vans at night or on long bandobast duty have it worse, as they have to use dirty public toilets or nothing at all,” said senior journalist Ramchandra Pawar.
Insiders said while officers had better facilities, such as housing, women constables have been neglected after they were recruited in large numbers after the reservation.
Shalini Dongre has been attached to a police station in Mumbai’s central suburbs for two years, but has now decided to prepare for other jobs. “I was lured by the fancy of the uniform, but the realities are very different. The officers have separate washrooms and housing facilities inside the city. We have to share the common toilet. We get hardly any rest as we live in far-off places because we can’t afford rented accommodation within the city. We work 13-14 hours and our health goes for a toss.”
Police sub-inspector Archana Patil went undercover to bust a human trafficking ring just three years into the job. Patil, now a key member of the police station’s detection squad, said she was able to go through the assignment because her husband and mother-in-law were supportive.
But her junior colleague, Shabana Makdum, is clear that she won’t get married as she can’t handle the pressure of a job and a family. “I’d rather not think of the latter, so that I can do justice to the profession,” she said.
Pawar fears the dropout rates are going to be high. “Most recruits are single now. With the odd duty hours and the long commute home, many may find it difficult to manage a personal life once they get married,” said the journalist.
Women in khakhi have better opportunities today, but will the state’s police department go the distance to keep them in service?