India's First Woman Railway Driver - Surekha Yadav
her canary-yellow sari and gold earrings, with a pair of thin-framed
spectacles perched on her nose, Surekha Yadav could be any woman
stepping down from the train at Mumbai’s main railway station.
But the 44-year-old mother-of-two stands out from the crowds on the
platforms at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) as she doesn’t just
travel on the trains – she drives them.
Yadav was the first female passenger train driver on Mumbai’s Central Railwaysand has become a standard-bearer for women in a traditionally male-dominated industry.
Since she first jumped into the cab of Mumbai’s packed commuter trains
10 years ago – attracting curious looks from commuters – one other
“motorwoman” now plies the same suburban route. Two are assistant
are also women train drivers on the Western Railway network, ferrying
many of the 6 million people who use the city’s overstretched network
Yadav, who admitted having no interest in trains before applying for a
job as an assistant goods train driver in 1989, said she has had nothing
but support from her male colleagues.
Motorwoman drives equality in India
“They encouraged, helped and took care of me,” she said, adding she had
taken special training to become the first woman driver of a “ghat
loco”, the two-engined passenger trains that climb the hills of western
Maharashtra state. “Because I was the only woman, they were curious
whether I could do it or not,” she said.
Women like Yadav can be found throughout Indian history, from warrior
queens like Rani Lakshmibai and members of the independence movement to
the first – and so far, only – female prime minister, Indira Gandhi.
But although India’s constitution “guarantees to all Indian women
equality”, differences between the sexes still exist, particularly in
rural areas, in terms of access to education, health care and even food.
Over a third of Indian women aged 15 to 49 said they had experienced
domestic violence, according to a 2007 National Family Health Survey.
Overall violence against women increased by nearly 25 percent between
2003 and 2007, the latest available government statistics show. The
highest rises – more than 30 percent – were recorded for kidnap,
abduction and torture.
Madhu Purnima Kishwar, of New Delhi’s Centre for the Study of Developing
Societies and founder of leading rights group Manushi Sangathan, said
that in the workplace gender was no bar to success – provided women were
strong. “In India, women who demonstrate that they are stronger than
men usually find men falling at their feet,” she said, linking it to the
worship of Hindu goddesses and the importance of mothers in Indian
Apart from being India’s first “motorwoman”, Yadav has also been part of
the attempt to curb another problem: complaints about sexual harassment
– or “eve-teasing” as it is known in India.
Rail minister Mamata Banerjee introduced “Ladies Specials” trains in
India’s four largest cities this year to improve safety for female
commuters, whose numbers are increasing as more urban women forge
careers outside the home. Yadav drove the first service into CST.
She is positive about her job and the opportunities it has given her,
attributing her determination to succeed to her family, who sent her to
convent school before she took a diploma in electrical engineering.
“Everybody was given the chance to chase their own dream. Whatever they
wanted to do. We had freedom for education. We took advantage of that.
We were very lucky to get that,” she explained. “(My mother) never said
being a girl child you should do cooking. You should study first then we
will see. You need to be bold.”
Nevertheless, Yadav – who cites as influences Indira Gandhi and
Lakshmibai, the 19th century heroine of Indian resistance against the
British – admits it has still been tough. The job is physically
demanding and time consuming, giving her less time to spend with her two
teenaged sons and police officer husband.
Working in an all-male environment since college has also taken its toll
on her social life, she said. “I miss the friendship with women for the
last 23 years. I feel shy talking with girls now,” she said.
Yadav works for 10 hours every day and she was one of the 10 women,
felicitated recently by the Delhi-based National Women’s Council for her
Yadav has been working with the Central Railways for the last eight
years. Recently she was promoted from assistant driver to motorman for
local suburban trains. Amongst the four women who were selected for the
job, she is the only one who has continued in it.
The pay scales for women, according to Yadav, are on par with the male
workers. And how do the male workers react to a woman driver? “Some are
jealous. Some are co-operative,” says Yadav. And this is true even of
the passengers. “Sometimes during emer gencies people discover that
there is a woman driver. I don’t lose my cool. And if the mob is angry
it generally calms down a bit when it spots a woman driver at the
controls,” she adds.
But to be safe in such situations, Yadav has worked out a strategy. Says
she, “I close all the doors, remain alert for any attacks and try and
think on my feet. The people who do rasta rokos or try to damage trains
should fight it out with the administr ation. There is no point in
attacking trains. They should have the right attitude and approach. As a
driver, my mind is on passenger safety and timely arrivals.”
Yadav may be a small cog in the wheel of the suburban railway network in
Mumbai that transports roughly 14 million passengers across the
metropolis during peak hours, but for millions of other women who want
to work and earn, she is as good a role model as they can get.