Priti Kumari, 36, is now used to the rigorous regimen of a motor woman. She became the first motor woman on Western Railway locals in October 2010.
Kumari is among those women employees who comprise 8% of the Western Railway staff across the Mumbai division. A minuscule number of them are in male-dominated jobs such as that of stationmaster and motor woman. A majority of women employees manage booking offices, are in administrative posts or ticket checking. “It has been a little more than a year and I am used to the shifts and the stress that come with being a motor woman. Sometimes we barely get five to six minutes to cross the entire crowded platform to reach the other end of the train. It is not easy at all,” said Kumari, who lives in railway accommodation at Wadala and has a nine-year old daughter. Her husband is a technician with the air force.
“We do not discriminate at the entry level. Traditionally, some jobs have been considered a male bastion because of shift duties and women find it hard to manage home and shifts,” said Sharat Chandrayan, chief public relations officer, Western Railways.
Kumari does the morning and afternoon shifts, but is not given the night shift.
Surekha Yadav was the first Indian woman to become a motor woman in 2001 on the Central Railways but only two more women drivers are presently employed on the central suburban and western suburban network in Mumbai.
Apart from motor woman, the other challenging jobs include that of gang man and points man. Women often take up these jobs because of compassionate postings. That means if a woman loses her husband or father on duty in the railways, she is entitled to a job depending on her qualifications.
Take the case of Pradnya Kamat, 47, perhaps the only senior female pointsman on the western suburban network. She joined as a platform porter in the late 1990s after her husband, a ticket collector passed away. As she had studied only till Class 8 she was absorbed as a Class IV employee. “I worked hard and never shied away from these jobs. Later, I was appointed as a pointsman and have recently been promoted. I get a lot of help from my male colleagues,” said Kamat, whose job is considered to be one of the toughest involving shunting, coupling and uncoupling of bogies.
Although most women do not mind the physical labour, many said they found it difficult to manage home and shift duties.
“First of all it may be wrong to say that empowerment has happened because women can now do jobs that were earlier meant for men. Women go through a difficult time, as they have to adjust and apologise at work as well as home. The attitudes of families need to change,” said women’s rights activist Pushpa Bhave.
For example, at Kamat’s house, her mother helps with the housework and her sons understand the need to cooperate with their mother. “We understand that her job is not easy and very few women do it. We help her in every way because she is the first woman in our family to go out and work,” said Manish Kamat, 21, who works at a call centre.
Kamat said education is most important for women. “Women can do anything. But we lag behind because of lack of education. Had I been educated I would have got a better job but I made the most of my chances,” she said.
Women at their best when they take the wheel
Lakshmi Shelar, 35, joined the 1,200 strong women bus conductor force of the Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation (MSRTC) last year. She left a temporary job at a primary health centre before getting the ‘secure government job’.
The MSRTC first enrolled 151 women as conductors as early as 1998 and the numbers have grown. Of more than 35, 000 bus conductors, 1,200 women ply on routes such as Mumbai-Alibaug and Mumbai-Pune, that are relatively shorter and women can avoid late nights.
“Earlier, I used to be scared of altercations with unruly passengers, but now I am fine. I know we have the support of the driver and other travellers. We have to ensure a smooth journey for all passengers,” said Shelar, whose primary concern is earning enough to educate her two daughters. Her husband works as a security guard with a private company.
While MSRTC has managed to steadily add to its women’s team, the Brihanmumbai Electric Supply & Transport Undertaking (BEST) had also inducted seven women conductors in 1998. However, ten years later in 2008, the women asked to be transferred to other department. One of the reasons was inability to handle crowds. According to an HT-Akshara survey on sexual harassment in public spaces conducted in December 2011, 46% of respondents had said they had faced harassment inside buses. The spokesperson said as of now there are no new plans to induct more women conductors.
– Inputs by Kailash Korde