“Our home was close to a railway track. I remember how, as a kid, I would run to the terrace every time a train zoomed by. Watching it go would make me so excited. That feeling has remained unchanged, even after all these years,” says 34-year-old Kumkum Suraj Dongre, a native of Mainpuri village in Madhya Pradesh.
Today an inspiration for many other women, she followed her childhood dream of becoming one of the first female loco-pilots in the Western Railways. And a big part of the credit, she says, goes to her ever-supportive family.
“When I told them that I wanted to drive a train when I grew up, they were utterly clueless. Regardless, they remained supportive and encouraging throughout. I, too, wasn’t sure if women in India drive trains at all, but I thought, ‘Why not?’. My father encouraged me and said that if I studied well, I could do it. All my achievements so far are fruits of my parents’ love, patience and support,” she says.
This year, Kumkum was a part of history in the making, when she commanded a goods train from Vasai Road in Maharashtra to Vadodara in Gujarat, with an all-women crew. It was the first time that the Western Railways had initiated an all-women crew supervision of a goods train on a long-distance route.
Becoming a loco-pilot
A B. Com graduate from a college in her village, Kumkum had been preparing to drive a train for years. She had enrolled in a two-year electrical course from Industrial Training Institute (ITI) so that she could pursue college alongside, without having to move to a city. The ITI course was her gateway to becoming eligible for the Railway entrance exam, which was an experience in itself, she says.
“Being the first at anything is a daunting feeling, but exciting nevertheless. I too was nervous initially. There were so many people staring at us women applicants like we didn’t belong, but I didn’t let that get to me,” says Kumkum about her experience at the entrance exam centre in the Railways Recruitment Board (RRB) Bhopal. She had applied for the post of Assistant Loco Pilot (ALP) and was one of the seven women among thousands of male entrants.
While preparing for the railway exams, Kumkum also completed her post-graduation in Social Science. After this, she joined the Indian Railways as an ALP in 2013, and moved to Mumbai for training and medical examination. Here, at Mumbai’s Vasai lobby in Western Railways, she found herself to be the only woman ALP.
‘Negativity or resistance is always a motivation’
Becoming an ALP was anything but easy for Kumkum, who had to overcome a number of hurdles along the way.
From being mocked at the entrance exam by other male entrants to having to prove her mettle to male colleagues who believed a woman cannot survive in a difficult job of such nature, she has braved every adverse situation and turned it into her motivation to do better.
“People were sceptical at first. They treated me with respect but thought a woman couldn’t do such a heavy duty job. I had to prove myself time and again by volunteering during the most difficult situations, just so I could show that this is a job for women too. Every time someone doubted my abilities, it made me stronger and more focused on my goal,” says Kumkum, recalling an incident when she had to get down from the train mid-journey to check the wheels, while it was halted in a jungle in the middle of the night.
Today, Kumkum’s journey has inspired many more women to join this profession. In the Mumbai region alone, there are now 33 female assistant loco-pilots in training.
“I try to be there for them. I want to be a role model and support system for these women because I know how valuable it is,” adds the loco-pilot, who dreams of driving high-speed trains like Duronto, Rajdhani Express and the Bullet train, someday.
“It’s very important to have people to look up to in your workplace. And as a woman, having another female mentor in a line that has traditionally been male-dominated was a huge boost for us. Kumkum has supported and guided us through various challenges and I am very thankful for that,” says 29-year-old Udita Verma, an ALP working with Kumkum.
Edited by Divya Sethu