The Lineswomen of Maharashtra

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The state’s electricity utility has hired women for a job some consider too perilous for them
On 6 September, at precisely 9.30 am, when 22-year-old Rupali Gawand climbed up an electricity pole, little did she know that she had made history. All she was aware of was a feeling of elation. The climb, though with safety gear, was scary at first. But she gained confidence with every upward step, and before she knew it, she had climbed all the way up and then down. Those assembled below clapped. Photographs were clicked. There was much cheering. For the petite Rupali, it was a moment that will forever stay in memory.

Rupali made history as the first woman in the country to climb an electricity pole as part of her job. A vidyut sahayak, she is among 2,200 women recruits who have recently been employed as linewomen by the Maharashtra State Electricity Distribution Company Ltd (MSEDCL). This is the first time in India that such a company has taken on women as line staff to work hands-on with electricity poles, live cables, transformers and other pieces of field equipment that function as part of a power supply network. So when Rupali climbed up an electricity pole that cloudy morning as part of her training, she was the first.

The recruitment is part of a policy that reserves 30 per cent of the jobs in the sector for women. In case the government could not find suitable candidates to appoint, it had the option of making appointments in another sector. However, says Ram Dutonde, general manager, public relations, MSEDCL, the company decided to hire women as vidyut sahayaks (literally, electricity helpers).

Neither the company nor Rupali saw it as a breakthrough. At least not until Open broached the subject. “The first batch of women was being trained [recently] and pole climbing was part of it. We did write down the date and time, but the significance of Gawand’s climb was lost on us,” says Chandrashekhar Yerme, chief engineer and programme coordinator at the company’s Nashik training centre.

“My God! Am I really the first woman to do this?” asks a jubilant Rupali from her home in Borze village in Raigad district’s Pen taluka. Her big regret is that she did not wait a little longer atop the pole for a good view. “I was nervous,” she says, “I just forgot to look around. Everyone was clapping and I was looking down at them. I wish I had stayed up there a little longer.”

Rupali belongs to the Agri community of fisherfolk whose women sell fish for a living; they cannot understand why she has taken to climbing poles when selling fish is so much easier. For her, however, it was a challenge she gladly took on. For days during her training, she watched male colleagues climb up and down electricity poles. However, no woman was willing to step forth and give it a try. “I observed the men for two days, and the next day decided to do it myself,” she says, “It looked difficult, but every step I moved up it seemed so easy.”

She was brought up by her mother Vijaya, a domestic help who had such a gruelling daily schedule (without holidays) that it robbed her and her three siblings of “mother’s love”. But it also made her determined to give her mother a better life. Today, armed with a government job on a starting monthly salary of Rs 6,000, she knows her family’s days of poverty will soon be over. Vijaya is proud of her daughter.

About 650 km away from Rupali’s home in Borze lives 21-year-old Benazir Babumia Shaikh. A resident of Tuljapur in Osmanabad district, she is the first and only Muslim girl to have found a place in this squad. Unlike Rupali, she has not climbed a pole yet but says she will soon do so, as the job demands.

Benazir is elated but also intimidated by the job. Four months since she took it up, she is more worried about travelling to her workplace than what the job entails. It takes three bus rides covering a distance of 75 km to reach her office in Latur district’s Khillari village. She starts out from home at 7 am and manages to reach by 10 am. She’s back home by 7.30 or 8 pm.

The prospect of climbing poles does not excite Benazir. “Girls should not climb poles,” she says, “I will do so if the job demands it. My office is really far and travel takes the fun out of the job.” Her father Babumia Vajir Shaikh, who owns a cable network in the village, is not pleased with her job, and neither is her mother Raiesa. While Shaikh, an Arts graduate, is willing to give it a year’s time, Raiesa, who studied up till class nine and then left school to marry him, wants their daughter to quit as soon as possible. “The carrot of a permanent job is dangling before us. So we are letting her do it,” says her father, who worries about her travel expenses (about Rs 150-200 a day), apart from personal safety and job profile.

“We did not know that she will have to climb poles. If she is doing this, then what will the men who work with her do? Stand and watch?” asks Shaikh, adding that he would like her to “reach the skies” but not like this. Another matter of family concern is Khillari’s tag as an earthquake prone area.

The company’s recruits include both married and unmarried lineswomen. All of them are from conservative families of modest means living in rural Maharashtra, mostly women who have never stepped out of home for work and had non-family men around.

“Government jobs are best suited for women,” says Swati Sonawane, 28, a mother of a one-year old, “At least one member of the family must be in a government job.”

By and large, married women have more supportive families than unmarried girls, whose parents worry about finding husbands for daughters who climb electricity poles. For 23-year old Ankita Pawar, who is unmarried and lives in central Mumbai, convincing her family to place faith in her new job has been difficult. “My late father was very supportive,” she says, “I almost quit the training course after his death. My close friends and teachers helped me stay on. My family did not know that I had got this job until much later.”

All of them have completed the mandatory requirements of the job: an electrician’s diploma from either the state-run Industrial Training Institutes or private establishments and an apprenticeship.

To boost their morale, the entire women’s squad has been gifted a toolkit each. “The plier, tester and screwdrivers are important implements that have to be carried by the line-staff at all times,” says Yerme. The khaki uniform of a tunic and trousers, with a broad black belt, is compulsory. Though caps are not a must for everyone, the women have been given net caps to keep their heads covered as a safety measure. “They all have long hair and it is extremely risky to work with it,” says Yerme, “They have been told to keep [their hair] covered when they move out into the field.”

The caps, however, are not large enough to shield them from the sun. Since they would be working outdoors for long periods, some confess to making Fair & Lovely face cream an essential part of their vanity kit.

In all, MSEDCL has 7,000 men and women on its line staff. Training for the job is either imparted at the main training centre in Nashik or at regional centres in Amravati, Sangli, Aurangabad and Nashik (which has a smaller unit too). All these centres are training exclusive women’s batches at the moment.

For 32-year-old Amita Sanase, a mother of two, this is her second job, the first being that of a lawyer. After an electrician’s diploma and an apprenticeship with the Kalyan Dombivili Municipal Corp, Amita decided to study Law. She practised as a junior lawyer on civil and criminal cases and had set her heart on a private practice. That was until her husband Sandeep chanced upon an online application form on the MSEDCL website. “He told me about it only after I was [shortlisted],” she says, “He encouraged me to go for the interview and was very happy when I got the job.” She is keen to start climbing electricity poles as soon as she can.

Every member of the line staff needs to undergo—and clear—a five-day field training module before being allowed to climb poles. Since the job demands physical endurance, all climbers, regardless of gender, are taught the importance of weight maintenance (even though overweight workers are kept on the rolls). The safety instructions are strict, since a single mistake could prove fatal.

Then there are other perils too. Snapping off power supply, for example, is a particular challenge in rural areas. Here, supply has to be cut off from transformers and electricity poles, and the linesmen who do it are sometimes attacked. Now with lineswomen assigned the task, their safety would need to be assured to the extent possible. As an employee welfare measure, the company has instituted a special redressal cell to look into any work related problems faced by them. “We have tried to anticipate as many issues as possible,” says Dutonde, “But there could be something we have not expected. We will learn as we go.”

Amita does not fear the perils of her job. She says she is confident that the company’s management will not shirk its responsibility for its employees’ safety.

The men on the company’s staff, meanwhile, are not altogether sure that it is a good idea to have lineswomen doing a job that only they have done all these years. Some say that it is a good move on the company’s part. Many feel that women should be allotted desk rather than field jobs. Even with precautions, a few of them argue, there could be trouble with snapping off power supply. They are waiting and watching. After some experience of the job, they feel, the sahayaks themselves will want to shift to the safety of indoor work.