In the 46 years of its history, the National Fire Service College (NFSC) of Nagpur never saw a uniform-clad woman walk out of its gates. But the entry of a 26-year-old Harshini Kanhekar in 2002, upended the norm.
She broke into the male bastion, becoming India’s first ever Woman Fire Fighter.
Back in the day, the college would use the arcane technique of transmitting written message using an electric device to intimate its students. She walks me down memory lane, reliving that moment the NFSC telegram arrived, saying she cleared the entrance exam. “It was the golden moment of my life. When I bought the enrolment form, I wasn’t aware that there was absolutely no history of a girl studying in the institute.”
All Harshini saw when she walked around the campus was a sea of men, with no woman in plain sight. But that did not deter her because Harshini’s eyes were set on the historic red building. “All I could see was this beautiful red building. And in that moment I dreamt of getting an admission into this college,” she recalls.
While she was submitting her form, a gentleman from the administration told her, “Ma’am, please apply to the army or air-force college where there are facilities for women students. This is an all-men’s college.”
Far from being a defeatist, Harshini’s resolve was only strengthened after hearing this.
Until 2002, the fire service was the only field women were not represented in. And Harshini was bent on changing that.
She passed the Union Public Service Commission-styled entrance exam where only 30 seats were up for grabs. Round two involved a medical examination. The Doctors handling the medical tests said, and she recalls, ‘Beta, it’s a gruelling course. Are you sure, you will be able to do it?’”
Her final interview was with an intimidating panel. When the interview started, one of the panelists remarked that she would be the Kiran Bedi of the fire services. “I was delighted, but I did not let it get to my head. Besides, somebody would always push me to the top while someone else pulled me down,” she adds. Once she cleared the interview, her dream of wearing a uniform was now closer than ever.
On her first day, she bumped into the man who had told her applying to NFSC would be an effort in vain, and remembers his nervous jumble of words on seeing her as an enrolled student. They were something along the lines of “you are always welcome to our college, Ma’am.” However, over the years, she learned that he would actively help women who were trying to get admitted that year on.
Getting into the college was only half the battle won; proving herself was where the real challenge lay.
“I would never turn up late, I wouldn’t be a weakling during drills and parades. I knew, if I turned up late, people will start generalizing that all girls are the same. I was the guinea pig, the parameter by which the girls to come after me would be judged,” she says.
A girl being on this campus was an anomaly. Naturally the news, which spread like proverbial wildfire, brought curious male spectators to the common room, where Harshini waited for the interview to begin. “Every time I walked around the building, people kept reminding me of ‘how I was the first girl to climb the stairs of the institute or the first girl to enter the director’s cabin,’ I was under constant watch.”
“Dealing with heavy water hoses, suction hoses, and mock drills with dummies, the course was difficult for everybody, gender no bar. I did not want to fall weak. So I’d go early and practice all by myself in the store room. Then, I could walk with my head held high and nobody would mock me,” she says.
After studying in an all-girls’ college for five years, she was now going to be studying in a college full of boys. Since it was a seven-semester ‘residential’ course in fire engineering, special provisions were made for Harshini. “As I was the only girl, the college had to obtain special permission from the Home Ministry to allow me to go home after classes,” she says.
So what made Harshini take the road less travelled ? The National Cadet Corps (NCC) she says!
“While at NCC, I read an article on Shivani Kulkarni, the first female pilot of the Indian Air Force from Vidarbha. She is my inspiration. At NCC, I could see the dignity and pride with which officers wore their uniform. It was at that time that my fascination with the uniform started,” says Harshini.
Life as a firefighter brought on more challenges, but Harshini stood undeterred. During Diwali celebrations in 2005, she attended six fire calls. It traces back to one of her most difficult cases.
“A shoe factory at Shastri Nagar in Delhi caught fire. A rocket entered the shop located on the upper floor of the building and sparked a fire in shoe boxes containing combustible material. The fire was so huge, the building started cracking. We climbed the opposite building and tried dousing the fire, but it did not work. We broke a wall in the adjacent building to fight the fire, but the smoke kept rising. We put our lives at stake by climbing the cracked building. After a 6-hour long operation from midnight to morning, we successfully got things under control,” she shares.
Harshini joined the Mehsana fire station in Gujarat in 2006, the second largest onshore production of the Oil and National Gas Corporation. It has more than 50 oil installations that fall under the purview of three fire stations. For the better part of her service, she has always been a station in-charge at either of the three fire stations. Mehsana is also a small village that doesn’t have a municipal fire station. So ONGC has taken up the responsibility of providing services to the village.
In 2010, she was transferred to Mumbai drilling services.
“I am very thankful to my management who encouraged and believed that a woman could handle offshore drilling services. Until my posting, no women was given the chance to serve in offshore rigs, which was unfair. It was only after 2013 that more women were encouraged to take up these services. Under offshore operations, one has to board a helicopter, conduct auditing, maintain follow-up and take full responsibility. This infrastructure was unavailable to women for the longest time but now we’ve come a long way,” she says.
Expressing her delight over the title years later, she says, “The very fact I am the first woman firefighter makes me feel proud, passionate and responsible.”
Harshini, unsurprisingly, also happens to be an experienced biker who married her biker buddy on Christmas so she wouldn’t have to ask for additional leave from her boss, she jokes.
Her recent biking adventures include travelling to the world’s highest motorable road, Leh Ladakh’s Khardung La pass and to Kargil.
She wraps up the interview by telling young women not to stop dreaming. “No field of work belongs to any gender. A bike, for example, doesn’t know if a man or woman is riding it. So, a male dominated or female dominated profession is a myth. If you love something and are passionate about it, do it. You live once, so push yourself to make the best of it. Don’t stop chasing your dreams.”