ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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‘Piloting’ Gender in the Indian Railways

Women Loco-pilots, Labour and Technology

Women loco-pilots in the Indian Railways, although few in number, face unique challenges as they negotiate with masculine forms of labour and technology in a male-dominated work environment. While, theoretically, they are treated at par with their male counterparts, new hierarchies are created on the job when they are expected to aspire to “masculine” standards of performance and discouraged from taking up the full range of tasks designated for loco-pilots. Thus, the entry of women in loco-piloting seems to reinforce its appearance as a masculine profession, and neither is the gendered nature of the system questioned, nor is it actively challenged.

This article is an excerpt from the author’s MPhil thesis titled Drivers of Change: Women Loco Pilots in Indian Railways. The author would like to thank her research supervisor Asha Achuthan, and employees of the Indian Railways who provided inputs for this research. In addition, the author would also like to acknowledge the anonymous reviewer at EPW whose comments have helped her strengthen and clarify her arguments and certain sections of the article.

Running a railway system not only requires trains, tracks, signals, stations and electricity but also people who are skilled to run this system. As of early 2020, there are 18 zones in Indian Railways, each further divided into divisions. The labour involved is also arranged in a hierarchy, with gang men and unskilled mechanical labour at the lowest rungs and the Railway Board in New Delhi at the top. Given its huge geographical expanse, Indian Railways has ­developed into a fragmented as well as hierarchical profe­ssional domain; the fragmented nature due to physical distances and the hierarchies as inherited from colonial times.

This article looks at one specific category of workers, namely women loco-pilots, or engine drivers, as they are known in common parlance. While the profession of engine driving is as old as the inception of the railways, women’s entry into it is a fairly recent phenomenon, especially in the Indian context. Surekha Shankar Yadav is known as the first woman train driver in India, who joined the railways in the late 1980s (Think Change India 2018). Since then, several women have followed in her footsteps, in different zones across the country. However, the number of women loco-pilots is still low. In 2015, out of a total of 55,803 loco-pilots in India, only 291 were women.1

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Updated On : 16th Jul, 2020
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