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PK Thresia: The Forgotten Story of India’s First Woman Chief Engineer

PK Thresia: The Forgotten Story of India’s First Woman Chief Engineer

The first woman in Asia to serve as a chief engineer in a state’s public works department, Thresia lived a life only a handful of other women of her time lived.

Engineering as a profession continues to be a male-dominated one in India. An All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) revealed that although engineering is the third major stream to witness enrollments in the country after Arts and Science, only 28.6 per cent comprises of female enrollments. This is a phenomenon that is not just seen in India but across the world.

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In this context, women who first forayed into this profession were the true pathbreakers who completed their degrees and achieved great things.

Source: (Left to Right) PK Thresia, Lellamma and Lalitha, the first women engineers in India

P K Thresia is one of the first three women to have graduated from College of Engineering, Guindy (CEG), University of Madras. Lalitha and Lellamma George were the other two women with Lalitha being the first woman to receive an engineering degree in the country.

In the book Roots and Wings – Inspiring Stories of Indian Women in Engineering by Shantha Mohan, Lalitha’s daughter, Syamala, explains that although Thresia and George were a year junior to Lalitha, they all had to graduate at the same time in 1944 because the Second World War was at its peak and the university had decided to cut down the engineering course by a few months.

Thresia, armed with a degree in Civil Engineering, then joined as a Section Officer at the Public Works Commission of the Kingdom of Cochin under the British rule at the time. She later went on to become the first woman Chief Engineer in the Public Works Department (PWD) in Kerala in 1971, a position she served for eight years. This also made her the first woman in Asia serving as a chief engineer in a state’s PWD.

“I was in office for only about three months. However, by then I [had] understood that an engineer’s life is not as difficult as many women think,” said Thresia to Kerala’s premier newspaper Malayala Manorama, that felicitated her promotion in 1971.

Notable Work in the PWD

Source: PK Thresia became the first woman chief engineer in 1971

After Thresia joined the PWD department, she was soon promoted to Assistant Construction Engineer for the TB Sanatorium located in Mulakunnathukavu, Kerala. Thereafter, when she became the Executive Engineer, she moved to Ernakulam in 1956.

As a chief engineer, Thresia ensured infrastructural development in her tenure commissioning at least 35 new bridges every year and road construction projects. Additionally, she also worked on many projects related to the construction of hospitals like the women’s and children’s hospitals affiliated to the Kozhikode Medical College.

Not one to shy away from experiments, Thresia also pioneered rubberised bitumen roads in Kerala. She went on to become a member at the conferences held by the Specification & Standards Committee of the Indian Road Congress.

Life Outside Work

Source: Thresia’s parents, Kunchalichy and Kakkappan

Thresia was born on 12 March 1924 in a Christian family. She was the second oldest of the six children. Her father, Kakkappan, was an agriculturist in Edathiruthy in Kerala’s Thrissur District. She studied and graduated from St. Mary’s High School in Kattoor.

Her father was one of her biggest pillars of strength who wanted his daughter to fulfil her dream of pursuing an engineering degree. She went on to join the CEG because the only engineering college in Kerala did not admit women. However, two years after she graduated from CEG, she lost her father. It was her mother, Kunchalichy, who took care of the family after her father’s death.

Thresia chose to dedicate her heart and soul to her work and never got married. She retired in 1979 after having worked in Kerala’s PWD for almost 34 years! Post-retirement, she founded a company called, ‘Taj Engineers’.

“I started working at a time when it was rare to find women in the services. However, I have never had to regret the fact that I am a woman,” Malayala Manorama quoted the esteemed engineer.

Also Read: Married at 15, Widowed at 18: How a Single Mom Became India’s 1st Woman Engineer!

(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)

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