Conductors of change

Mar 08, 2013, 12:08 IST | Richa Pinto and Shashank Rao

They are homemakers and breadwinners but these women who have chosen to work as bus conductors or as railway track supervisors wear both the hats without complaining and with complete conviction

Mumbai positiveThe proverbial man’s world looks like it is in for a gender overhaul, with women no longer shying away from jobs traditionally, and tacitly, reserved for men, such as those in public transport operations. Be it the railways or road transport, women have made inroads in professions dominated by men.

Quick on their feet and alert in their transactions, the women employed as bus conductors by the Navi Mumbai Municipal Transport (NMMT) and the Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport (BEST), are doing their profession justice, the city transport authorities believe.

Long way to go
BEST, Mumbai’s road transport body, had in 1998 or so employed seven female conductors. But this group was dismantled in 2006 by request of the women themselves, and absorbed within the organisation for other jobs. “Several demands were raised by these women conductors back then. So the management decided to assign them clerical jobs,” said a BEST official on condition of anonymity.

Nikita Kule, a bus conductor
Nikita Kule, a bus conductor, says that the job gives her a whole new perspective

Now, the undertaking has begun employing women as conductors again. The BEST has trained and employed three women conductors who presently start from Wadala depot. Though the man-woman ratio is far from desirable - BEST has 12,000 bus conductors - it is still a start of sorts. Sources said issues like toilet facilities for women employees at bus stations, separate rest rooms and so on are being looked into, as the BEST intends to appoint more female conductors and drivers. 

Nikita Kule, a BEST conductor since November 2012, says her job gives her a perspective all of her own. “This sure is a male-dominated job but I want to prove that women can perform these duties,” says Kule, a mother of two young girls, who travels from her residence in Malad to Wadala depot after 7 am and works till 6 pm.

Sulochna Bansode
Sulochna Bansode, the pioneer

“Many times, passengers pay fare with a smile, happy to see a woman in the khaki green uniform,” she says. Even she faces the chhutta problem “though passengers don’t usually argue with me.” Kule’s counterparts in Navi Mumbai transport outdo BEST on the strength of numbers. The NMMT has 15 women on its rolls who work as bus conductors, striving each day to earn their livelihood in an occupation traditionally dominated by men.

The trailblazer
It all began with one woman determined to find a steady means of income in a new city. Sulochna Bansode was the one who broke the mould and set out to make a mark in a profession deemed odd, even unsafe, for women, given the shoving crowds in any public transport in Mumbai and suburbs.

Other women conductors, including Seema Patil (extreme right) the first woman conductor on a NMMT AC bus added that passengers are happy to see them

Bansode is the first woman to be appointed as bus conductor in Navi Mumbai, which was in April 2011, since the time the NMMT services began in 1996. So far, she is happy with the job because it helps her spend enough time at home. She believes that giving adequate time to family is a priority for most married women.

She gives the credit for being part of a profession like this to Thane Guardian Minister Ganesh Naik. “Getting this job was not easy. I came to live in Navi Mumbai around a decade ago and used to do all kinds of odd jobs to eke out a living. Then I heard of the Janta Darbar (public court) held by Thane Guardian Minister Ganesh Naik and decided to put forth my case before him.”

When Naik heard Bansode’s case he was convinced that she needed a job desperately. He asked for her qualifications. “I mentioned to him that I held a bus conductor’s licence to my credit which had been issued from Kasbhe in Sangli in July, 2003. He was impressed when he heard this and assured me a job in NMMT as a conductor,” recounts Bansode, who enjoys it when her children call her ‘conductor-conductor’.

Following lead
Later in December 2011, 14 more women were appointed as conductors by the city transport authority. Most of them believe the pluses and downsides of the occupation balance each other. Seema Patil, the first woman conductor in an air-conditioned NMMT bus, says, “A lot of cash gets collected through passenger tickets in AC buses so not many lady conductors are willing to take charge as they think it to be a little bit risky.
But I did not find it much of a problem and I was more than willing to be a conductor. Now, however, I am given duty in non-AC buses as well.” Patil who speaks fluent English adds that a lot of commuters travelling in AC buses speak to her in English and she finds it easy to converse with them.

Patil’s coworker Suprita Tambhe says, “We come across passengers who are happy to know that women can do such a job so efficiently.” It is a matter of pride for her, she says. Asked of the obstacles she faces, she pauses and says, “Holding the ticket tray for long hours can be a bit difficult.

Besides, this is not a 9-5 desk job. We need to be out on the job come rain or sun. In case the bus breaks down we cannot cast off our responsibility and walk away. We have to wait till it gets repaired.” One of the female conductors has a cousin working in the same profession. “No job is easy in this world. Since my brother is here doing the same job as I, I feel much more comfortable,” says Reshma Nagurdekar.

Up to scratch
So far, NMMT has not had a single complaint regarding the 15 women conductors. They are efficient at the task they have been assigned to do. “Keeping in mind the demands of the profession, these woman are given general shifts which begin after sunrise and end before sunset. Our aim is to let women shine in this profession too,” said Pandit Tandell, NMMT traffic superintendent. NMMT transport manager GC Mangle added, “Work-wise, these women are all up to the mark and we have not had any cause for complaint.”

Thane yet to catch up
The Thane Municipal Transport (TMT), the transportation wing of the Thane Municipal Corporation, started its service in 1989 and in a span of over two decades, no woman has yet been appointed here, nor has there been a proposal to this effect.

“The TMT has a total of 923 conductors. No woman has been appointed up till now. We may consider appointing them in future, if required,” said Devidas Tekale, TMT manager. This comes as a surprise because the service is known to run ladies’ special buses during morning and evening rush hours on selected routes like Thane station-Pawar Nagar, Thane station-Godbunder Road and so on.

Gang women
It’s not what you think. Seen those men clad in orange vests over white shirts and khaki pants, walking on railway tracks? They are the gang men. Their job is to ensure that the tracks and surroundings are in order. Now, they have been joined in by gang women.

The Byculla office of the Central Railway’s Mumbai division has six gang women who have been monitoring and maintaining tracks in recent times. They are in charge of ensuring that tracks don’t falter and disrupt operations, that they are not overrun by weeds which need regular trims, and that the nuts and bolts are all in place so they are held steadfastly to the cement sleepers.

MiD DAY caught up with two such young women up for this heavy-duty, and often dangerous task. They cover the stretch from CST to Dadar stations. Geeta Sagathia, who joined CR in October 2012, says, “When I was given the job of cutting grass next to the tracks, I was disappointed. Also, it is scary crossing the tracks. It’s really confusing to know from which direction the train is coming.”

She recalls that once she was walking on the pit line next to the main line (where train movement happens) when a train came up from behind. She didn’t realise until her supervisor shouted out to alert her. She also worries that facing the scorching sun would pucker and darken her skin.

Her colleague Rama Tikone will appear for her second-year MCom exams. She is happy to secure a government job and feels the scope of her work could be amplified to suit her educational qualification. “I have done the work of joining tracks, oiled and greased bolts, cut grass, all while the trains were moving. It can get really scary out there,” says Tikone, who is presently assigned duty at the railway stores. During inspection by senior officials, these women are asked to accompany officials, who ensure that they are part of a group of at least 8-10 other gang men.

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