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Changes like that occurring at the Mining Engineering Department of IIT Kharagpur could lead to momentous changes for women in mining in India

Could the historically male-dominated mining industry be inching towards greater gender parity? The answer from IIT Kharagpur’s Department of Mining Engineering is yes. The department has seen a sharp rise in the number of female students in the undergraduate studies  – from a trickle of one or two in a year to 18 in the year 2019.

All the centrally funded technical institutes in India are mandated to increase the number of women graduating from these institutes. The number of female students admitted at IIT Kharagpur stood at 15% (with supernumerary seats created to make up the shortfall through JEE) in the year 2018, and 20% presently,  even including the Mining Engineering departments. In a matter of three years, these female students will be knocking on the doors of the mining companies for opportunities to work and to contribute to the safety, profitability and productivity of the industries.

In India, women were not permitted to work underground and even in surface mines, they were not allowed to work at night. Interestingly, coinciding with the change of decision in the female participation in undergraduate studies in mining engineering, the Ministry of Labour and Directorate General of Mines Safety which is a constituent body of the Ministry opened up through Gazette notification in 2019, hitherto unimaginable opportunities for underground employment for women. These opportunities cut across not only supervisory work but all types of activities of the mining profession.

According to the Directorate General of Mines Safety, the average daily employment of women in mines in 2011-12 accounted for 4.4% (24,294 females) of the total mining workforce which is considerably less compared to women labour force participation rate (22.5%) in India. The key occupations of engagement in the mining sector for women were reported as miners (mainly in the extraction of Iron, Gypsum, Magnesite and limestone), loaders and clerical and supervisory (Deloitte study on Human Resource & Skill Requirement Study for Indian Mining Sector, 2016).

Given that mining relies heavily on engineering talent, and women have proved that they can be capable engineers, the industry could gain a lot from greater diversity in its workforce and by having women in leadership roles. But the perception that mining is a ‘man’s job’, given the demanding nature of mining activity, has been a major contributing factor to the poor gender ratio. 

In modern day mining, where automation is the key, physical capabilities should not be a determining factor. Besides, there can be little doubts about the correlation between business growth and diversity. Companies with more women, specifically with women on their boards, have shown overall better performance: more efficiency, greater sustainability and higher profit margins.

Quite obviously, perceptions need to change, and at every level. At IIT Kharagpur, things changed in 2002-03, when the Department of Mining Engineering opened its doors to women at the undergraduate level.

Prof. Ashis Bhattacharjee, Professor at the Department of Mining Engineering, who was then Vice-Chairman of JEE, recalls the move. “We convinced the Joint Implementation Committee, the Senate approved the move and IIT Kharagpur, together with IIT BHU, began to offer Mining Engineering program to women.”

Things did not change overnight. The inflow of students at the undergraduate level remained a trickle.

“There were some exceptionally committed students though. One, B. Niharika of the 2012 batch worked in a top Australian mining company, before relocating to Hyderabad,” says Prof. Bhattacharjee. 

Perceptions also needed to change at a more fundamental level. And that seems to be happening now with more girls taking up mining.

“Before taking up Mining Engineering, I hardly knew what it was. But now I feel quite interested. There are so many facets to it,” says Samiksha Sharma, a 2nd year BTech Mining Engineering student, who has taken up Oil and Gas belt Testing and Enhanced Oil Recovery as her additional subjects. “Dual degree students can also specialize in Petroleum Engineering,” she reminds.

Like Samiksha, Niveditha Adari, a fourth year student, is also interested in the many opportunities that the Mining Engineering course at IIT Kharagpur leads to. She is interested in finance and management and as a Dual Degree student, she has ‘Financial Engineering’ as her specialization.

“I could go into operations research, which is an important part of mine planning. Or be part of finance planning for mining companies, where I could use my mining engineering knowledge.” 

Given the focus of the Mining Engineering Department of IIT Kharagpur, which is into interdisciplinary fields such as environment, health and safety, and so on, and the advantage of the varied specializations (Safety Engineering, Petroleum Engineering, Financial Engineering) women graduating from the Department will be open to varied roles both within the Mining sector and elsewhere. But what has also changed substantially for them is the government opening up to what is believed to be the “new realities” of society. Taking these realities into account, the Union government in 2019 lifted the restrictions of the Mines Act of 1952 and allowed women to work in underground mines and also in opencast or above ground workings of the mine during night hours.

“Somehow we need to prove ourselves,” says Samiksha, “About 20-30 years ago, when women were not common in Mechanical Engineering, if some of the women had not proved themselves, then others would not have followed in their path.”

Some, like Parama Mukhopadhyay, a PhD scholar at the Department of Mining Engineering, believe that the regulation is not enough and there are still enough restrictions in place to stall women’s full participation in hands-on mining (Read her story here).

“It is not about where women have greater scope. The idea should be that they can work everywhere,” says Prof. Sunita Mishra, who joined the Department in February 2020 and is the first lady to join the Mining Engineering faculty at IIT Kharagpur and probably in the country as well. A Mechanical Engineer, Prof. Mishra did her Masters in Tunnel Engineering from Mining Engineering from ISM Dhanbad and PhD in the area of Rock Dynamics from the Department of Civil Engineering at the IIT Delhi. Prof. Mishra, who is teaching Rock dynamics and mining machinery in the lab, is already a role model for students in the Department. 

As she exemplifies, and the girls of the Department are beginning to understand, proven skill and expertise will take them places. Samiksha’s worry is that if the industry will come around and change itself as fast as the changes are taking place with women and mining. “Rest assured,” say her professors, “This is just a transition, and things will fall in place.”

 

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