December 2004 | Shubha Madhukar

Make way for the driver sahibas

Tata Steel's Tejaswini project is a remarkable empowerment initiative that has seen 23 ordinary women become operators and drivers of heavy-duty machinery and vehicles

Perched on her forklift truck moving heavy materials, Sunaina Devi is a proud tejaswini, which roughly translates into 'woman who shines like a beacon'. A clearer definition of this mother of a 22-year-old son is that she's a role model for others of her gender. It has taken a while, but Sunaina finally feels that she is doing something worthwhile with her life.

Asha Hansda is a chip off the same block. She bicycles to work all the way from her village, then muscles up to operating a bulldozer and a 35-tonne dumper truck. "I have a prestigious job," she says. "When I operate the bulldozer at the waste recycling plant, sitting 8 feet high, I feel like I'm on top of the world. I also drive the heaviest dumper, which makes me a unique metal girl."

The enthusiasm and conviction of these tejaswinis is infectious. Self-belief shines through the eyes, words and demeanour of Ms Sunaina, Ms Asha and others like them. From being rejas (female counterparts of mazdoor) to becoming tejaswinis with Tata Steel at Jamshedpur, theirs has been a fairytale transformation.

These are women from the grassroots who worked as 'attendants' and 'office girls', never hoping to go beyond cleaning and serving tea for the rest of their lives. Then, as part of the Tata Steel women's empowerment plan, with a little encouragement and training, they blossomed to reveal their actual abilities. Project Tejaswini was conceived and launched in 2002 to provide women employees at Tata Steel with a platform to unleash their potential. What began as an experiment has turned out to be a huge success; the tejaswinis are now considered as good, if not better, mobile equipment drivers as their male counterparts.

Laxmi Kumari is another of these proud tejaswinis. Brimming with self-worth and satisfaction, she says: "When my neighbours address me as driver sahiba instead of chaiwali, my heart swells with pride. In the past I have been someone's wife, mother or daughter. Now I am my own person. I have a purpose in life."

The seeds of the project were sown when Niroop Mahanty, vice president (HR), RBB Singh, president of the Tata Steel workers' union, and BN Sarangi, chief HR/IR (steel), had an informal discussion about how to give growth opportunities to the women employees of Tata Steel. Instead of looking only at avenues in 'women's work', why not nurture and groom a few talented female employees to operate heavy mobile equipment like their male colleagues? In September 2002, vacancies were announced and application forms invited. The selection process assessed the women's will power, physical strength and their spirit of adventure. After a rigorous selection process, 13 women were selected from the 40 who had applied. Their transformation process began on November 3, 2002.

There was apprehension among workers, management and trainees alike. Some thought it a waste of money while others reckoned it was too daunting a job for women. The women themselves were a bundle of nerves, despite their enthusiasm. Mental, physical and social barriers had to be crossed – each step was a challenge. Learning to handle the huge equipment was the ultimate challenge, but changing from a sari to trousers and a shirt was the immediate one. During the driving lessons, while some hesitated even to mount the monstrous machines, others couldn't wait to drive them around.

Apart from being trained to operate the equipment, the tejaswinis were also imparted basic knowledge of their technical aspects, so as to enable them to appreciate their jobs better. Sessions on motivation and confidence building were part of the three-month training programme, designed by project coordinator Urmila Ekka with the help of equipment maintenance head PK Singh and equipment maintenance manager Sanjay Kumar. Mr Kumar imparted detailed training on the finer aspects of the various kinds of machinery: bulldozers, mechanical shovels, dumpers, tractors, forklifts of various capacities, light commercial vehicles, etc.

The technical inputs included an introduction of all types of vehicles, making a preliminary inspection before starting the vehicle, an overview of different types of diesel vehicles and their major sub-systems like fuel, steering, brake, lubrication, cooling and exhaust air systems, power transmission systems, an introduction to hydraulic systems, functioning of hydraulic pumps, hydraulic cylinders and control valves.

Trained drivers Ranvijay Singh and Sushil Kumar taught the women the actual operation of the heavy mobile equipment. During their hands-on training, not a single woman met with an accident, which boosted their confidence and helped them achieve their goal. Says Ranvijay Singh: "The trainees picked up very well from the third day onwards. They were full of enthusiasm and determination."

The women were also briefed on the steel manufacturing process, quality circles, dealing with customers, interpersonal skills, positive thinking, fire fighting, team building and road traffic rules. Mr Sarangi also arranged for visits from successful women to motivate them. Bachendri Pal, head of the Tata Steel Adventure Foundation and the first Indian woman to climb Mount Everest, gave tips on leadership skills and encouraged them to reach for the stars. Rupa Mahanty, a successful management consultant, conducted motivation sessions.

Three months of training transformed the simple rejas into efficient tejaswinis. There was support from family members, the Tata Steel management and the union. On January 3, 2003, when the 13 tejaswinis first publicly displayed their prowess on the heavy vehicles, they ushered in a new era in the history of Tata Steel, even as they embarked on a new life for themselves.

Interestingly, the first batch of 13 women holds a record for accident-free driving since they began work 21 months ago. In April 2004, another batch of 10 tejaswinis was trained and commissioned as mobile heavy equipment drivers. Aged between 33 and 42 years, the new tejaswinis are successfully operating huge cranes, rigging machines, welding machines, gas cutters and other precision instruments.

For all 23, it is not just the self-image of the woman that has undergone a transformation — their everyday lives and that of their families has changed forever. They are now financially sound, earning about Rs 10,000 a month as junior operators, which is more than double what they made earlier. If they maintain their commitment, precision and enthusiasm at work, they could well move up the ladder, become senior operators and take home as much as Rs 23,000 a month before they retire.

It has been a kind of revolution in itself, not just for these women but also for Tata Steel; in the 96 years of its history, women had never before done a man's job.