|“If a woman is sufficiently ambitious, determined and gifted, there is practically nothing she can’t do.”|
Like most of us, Surekha Yadav, too, loved to play the chhuk chhuk rail gadi as a child, but never did she ever dream that one day she will drive a real train and become the first woman loco driver in Asia. Dressed in 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, as she doesn’t just travel on the trains – she drives them.
Surekha is also the only woman in India who has had the privilege so far, of driving a mail express train. It was only during her training, she realized that she had entered an area that had so far been completely dominated by men. But once she was selected, she tried to give her best; today Surekha has the distinction of having driven local suburban trains, ghat trains, goods as well as mail express trains.
However, the most precious moment in Surekha’s 24-year-long career came when she took the driver’s seat of the prestigious Deccan Queen on the picturesque Pune-Mumbai route on Women’s Day on March 8, 2012. Passengers’ overwhelming response and the authorities’ praises made it a memorable day for her. At present, there are nearly 50 women loco pilots driving either suburban trains or goods trains or working as shunters or assistant drivers; they all dream of piloting the Rajdhanis and Shatabdis and other superfast trains one day.
Driving trains remained strictly a man’s domain till about 25 years back but after Surekha Yadav led the way, more and more women are opting to take the seat behind the wheels of the Indian Railways. Surekha was the first female passenger train driver on Mumbai’s Central Railways ,and has become a standard-bearer for women in a traditionally male-dominated industry.
Surekha, who admitted having no interest in trains before applying for a job as an assistant goods train driver in 1989, said she has been getting all the support from her colleagues. “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-engine 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. Apart from being India’s first “motor woman”, Surekha has also been part of the attempt to curb another problem: complaints about sexual harassment or “eve-teasing” as it is known in India.
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 give priority to your studies and be bold “she added.
Nevertheless, Surekha – 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 teenage 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. Surekha works for ten hours every day, and she was one of the ten women, felicitated recently by the Delhi-based National Women’s Council for her outstanding service. Surekha 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.
“Sometimes during emergencies people discover that there is a woman driver. I don’t lose my cool, 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, Surekha has worked out a strategy. She says, “I close all the doors; remain alert for any attacks, and try and think what best can be done. The people who do’ rasta roko’ agitations or try to damage trains should fight it out with the administration. 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.”
Surekha 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.