Tribal women track success in a man's job

MUMBAI: As the soft glow of dusk settles over Deckwad station, Sharmila diligently walks the railway tracks, a routine she has been following since the last four years. Soon, she will climb the signal frame to light kerosene lamps, so that incoming trains can see the lowered signal which tells them that they can pass.

Sharmila Manoj Batungi (30) is a pointsman at Deckwad station in Nandubar district. Her job involves changing levers, shunting trains, lowering signals to recieve incoming trains, handing and taking over token pouch (authority to proceed to the next station) _ basically ensuring the safe passage of trains.

This is no mean job, especially on a non-electrified line, where all the work has to be done manually. If she is not careful, even a small mistake can cause a major accident. Considered a difficult job even for men, this work is being done efficiently by three tribal women in Western Railway, in the Surat to Jalgaon section, also called the Tapti Valley.

Sharmila got this job after her husband, Manoj, a peon at the mechanical department at Nadurbar station, died after a prolonged illness.

After his death, she had to support two small children _ a four year-old daughter and three year-old son _ an aging mother-in-law, a teenage brother and sister-in-law. She also had a heavy loan to pay off and was left with no option but to work.

Sharmila has been performing her duties in a determined manner. Her work was recognised when she recieved the Divisional Railway Manager's award last year, for the most efficient work in Mumbai division.

"At first I was very afraid that the oncoming train would crush me. So I would quickly push the lever and run away. But now I am accustomed to it and am even enjoying myself. It feels great to be independent," she says.

Besides having enrolled her children in school, she recently got her sister-in-law married.

A similar tale is that of Kanta Dinker Kasava (43) who is posted at Khatgaon station in Nandurbar district. She too was given this job after her husband, a gangman at Vyara station (Surat district), was crushed to death by a passenger train while working at the railway gate. To support her children, Dilip (17) and Savitri (14), Kanta decided to do what she dislikes most _ "push the lever for changing the points". However, now she has started enjoying her work because "the staff is very co-opeartive." She wishes to see her son get a job in the railways and her daughter married. Kanta also manages a small piece of agricultural land eight km from Khatwada.

The youngest of the lot is 24-year-old Rekha Vasant Shirsat, who became a pointsman at Dondaiche (Dhulia district) in 1996 after her husband died of a heart attack. He was a 'khalasi' (helper) at Mumbai Central. She now stays with her parents.

Ambitious Rekha had just studied up to Class VIII at the time of her marriage. But after the death of her husband she started studying again and passed Class XI exams. She has also learnt English typing. "My dream is to become a booking clerk in the railways."

Is she interested in remarrige? "My parents are looking out for a suitable match," she replies shyly.

Western Railway's officials are surprised to see that these women are much better workers than men. According to Brijesh Dixit, additional divisional manager, Western Railway,"These ladies are quicker, sincere and hardworking. Most men holding this post are in the habit of getting drunk and then being absent. But these women are very regular. We are very happy with their work."

Dixit feels that more and more women from tribal and rural areas are taking up these type of jobs because they find it "challenging".

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Referred by: Mukandan CM
Published on: June 28, 2001
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