Tuesday, March 8, 2016

By S Lalitha    08th March 2016 

South Western Railway 'gang women' after a hard day's work at the City railway station in Bengaluru I S Manjunath


BENGALURU: These women do not head to work with handbags and mobile phones but with shovels, crowbars, hammers and pickaxes.

Designated as ‘track maintainers’ or ‘gang women’ in the Railways department, they perform one of the toughest and riskiest jobs one can imagine, virtually unknown and unsung.

Maintenance of the railway tracks so that trains could run safely on them is the crux of their job. What remains virtually unknown to the outside world are the various forms of hardships they encounter: snakes that appear when clearing bushes along the tracks, bites from poisonous insects, total absence of toilets in an eight-hour shift and the shouldering of their tools while walking for hours at a stretch on a regular basis and a fear of being run over by a train always at the back of one’s mind.

S Salamma, who has put in 10 years as a track woman and her colleague Gnanamani are attached to the Baiyappanahalli railway yard. Clad in their trademark blue saree uniforms, they appear thoroughly exhausted after a day of gruelling work under the blazing sun.

“Everything is bad about this job but this gives us a regular source of income which helps us sustain our families,” says Salamma.

Gnanamani, with 9 years of experience as a ‘gang woman’, is with a swollen palm following an insect bite while chopping off weeds lining the tracks. “We have our lunch along the tracks and take rest wherever we get shade during lunch time before resuming our job. It is a very tough job but we have to keep going,” she says.

Junior Engineer in the Permanent Way department, R Anitha, who supervises track men and women, says the sheer physical stamina the role requires makes it extremely tough for women. “Using crowbars, those working on tracks have to repeatedly shove the ballast (blue jelly on track) with force so that they are tightly packed and there is no gap between the small stones.” They work in gangs, with only one woman generally present in a group size ranging between 5 and 13.

“If the rails need to be replaced in the mid-section in the tracks, a weight of nearly 700 kilos needs to be loaded on a deploy (special vehicle) and taken to the spot and then unloaded. “It is quite heavy and the women have to carry the load along with the men in the team. Similarly, if a rail sleeper which approximately weighs 270 kgs needs to be replaced, it involves lifting and replacement,” she says.

Another JE, A K Prusty, says the absence of “basic facilities like toilets for the women makes the daily job so difficult.” Women who are in-charge of level crossing gates, too have similar job conditions and they are all alone, he adds. 

The surprise part is the huge influx of women of all ages during the last decade in track maintenance work, with the Bengaluru Railway Division alone having 120 women on its payrolls.

However, only some of them, particularly those attached to the yard area, are involved in the hard labour while the rest have migrated to less strenuous tasks or office duties after finding the track job too demanding.

Falling under the Class D category, the they are paid between `15,000 and `25,000 depending on experience.

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