In a society where flying airplanes is far more aspirational than driving a train, Kumkum Suraj Dongre dreamt of riding a train all her childhood. Standing on the terrace of her house in Mainpuri village in Mandla district of Madhya Pradesh, and watching trains zoom past, Dongre’s dream took flight. She started telling her family that one day she will drive a train and her family, while supportive, was also clueless as to how this would happen.
Earlier in January this year, she commanded goods train from Vasai Road in Maharashtra to Vadodara in Gujarat as part of an all-women crew. This was the first time ever that an all-women crew of Western Railways supervised a goods train on a long-distance route. “I didn’t know if women drove trains or not, but I believed that women could do it. Even my father would tell me that even I could ride a train if I studied well,” Dongre told MAKERS India in a telephonic conversation.
“People were staring at us like we were aliens, and at that time I realized for the first time that maybe women don’t become train drivers at all, but I brushed past that thought as my dream of driving a train was much bigger than a few moments of insecurity,” says Kumkum Dongre
Anxieties at the exam center
Dongre did her schooling from Mainpuri and then did her B.Com from the degree college in her village. Alongside, she did a two-year electrical course from Industrial Training Institute (ITI). “It wasn’t a norm for my family to send girls out to study in other cities, and so I chose to do ITI from my village itself so that I could become eligible to sit for the Railways entrance exam. My father and my elder sister supported me immensely through my entrance journey,” said Dongre, adding that while she was preparing for the railway exam, she also completed her post-graduation by doing an MA in Social Sciences. She joined the Indian Railways in 2013 as an Assistant Loco Pilot (ALP).
What may not be shocking but significant to note about Dongre’s journey through applying for the post of ALP is that at her entrance exam center in Railways Recruitment Board (RRB) Bhopal, she was among the few five to seven women in a massive pool of entrants comprising thousands of men. “People were staring at us like we were aliens, and at that time I realized for the first time that maybe women don’t become train drivers at all, but I brushed past that thought as my dream of driving a train was much bigger than a few moments of insecurity,” says Dongre.
Passing the exam
“I remember many men commented, and mocked us for even thinking of coming for the entrance exam. They treated us badly and said that girls won’t be able to sustain in this job for even a week,” the 33-year-old recounts from 2012. However, she cleared the exam in the first attempt and went to Mumbai for the medical examination, where again she found herself to be the only woman to have come for the job of an ALP. “The staff was also taken aback when they saw that a woman had cleared the exam for this heavy-duty post, but they treated me with respect,” she said.
Finally, she was inducted at Mumbai’s Vasai lobby in Western Railways as an ALP in 2013, when she was the only woman to be posted in such a job profile. Unlike the corporate and other sectors, when women breaking the glass ceiling in a male-dominated profession would be all over the news, Dongre’s recruitment in an unconventional job went unnoticed for an awfully long time.
"I want to drive fast-speed trains like Rajdhani Express, Durunto, and also the Bullet train. It will take over a decade more of experience to make this dream into a reality but I am all ready for it."
Challenges in a male-dominated profession
While stepping into a male-dominated profession is an achievement in itself, it can also be a struggle as the change in mindset takes time and can only happen as more women step into similar roles. In Dongre’s experience, she tells us, “While my relatives never said anything directly to me or my family, the staff, especially some people, in particular, have said that they will not work with a woman. Some loco pilots have even said that they won’t take a female ALP on night duties. Some people reproach women for growing in their careers, and especially so if that career does not have many women role models. I faced many challenges, but I would say that barely five percent of the people in my journey were narrow-minded people, the rest just encouraged me to do better and guided me,” Dongre adds.
Onwards and upwards
Now that she commands a goods train as a Loco Pilot, Dongre’s desire is to drive the Rajdhani Express and a Bullet train. “It will take me a decade to fulfill my dream as currently, I pilot a goods train. Right now, I have many milestones in front of me before I can reach my goal,” she says as she spills the beans on her future aspirations.
(Edited by Anju Narayanan)