India’s first woman firefighter Harshini Kanhekar talks about the challenges she faced and the thrill of being in an unconventional profession
Playing with fire is quite literally the job description of 38-year-old Harshini Kanhekar, said to be India’s first female firefighter. Her career, education and her life is a curious mix of fate and passion. Born in Nagpur, her family was always on the move since her father had a government job with transferable postings. From her passion for the uniform, to setting an exemplary example in a male-dominated profession, Kanhekar is a woman not bound by gender rules and societal expectations, laying out a trailblazing road for other women to follow. She is also an avid biker, travelling difficult roads. She married her biking buddy a year ago. Excerpts from the interview:
How did firefighting happen to you?
Let me begin by saying that firefighting was not my passion or goal, but serving in a uniform has been my dream. I wanted to be a part of the armed forces, so started as a cadet with NCC in college. After my Bachelors in Science from Lady Amritbai Daga, Nagpur, I applied for the armed forces as well as the National Fire Service College in 2002. At that point of time, I wasn’t aware that there had never been a girl student, and in fact the rules of admission didn’t mention any gender criterion.
As luck would have it, my admission got through at NFSC and even the college authorities were shocked and unprepared for a woman student. I was not only the first but also the only female student. After considering my dedication and job prospects, my family supported my decision to join the course.
Tell us about your training.
It was quite exciting since 70 per cent of it was practical training and only 30 per cent of it textbook learning. Although it’s a residential training programme, I was given special permission to go back home after classes since there wasn’t any women’s hostel. Because of lacking in preparedness, I had a bit of struggle. For instance, we had to change uniforms thrice in a day for different activities. So whereas the boys could just hop over to their hostels or the bathrooms, I had to visit a friend or make alternative arrangements.
I was equally conscious of being the flagbearer for my gender. I couldn’t show any kind of weakness because then women in general would be ridiculed. So I would put in extra effort, work harder and never slack. I would go before time and train to carry really heavy equipment so that I could learn to use them properly. I was always striving for the top and mid-way through my course, I received a job offer from the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Limited (ONGC), where I joined after graduating in 2006.
Firefighting as a profession...
Everything is fraught with risks, nobody can be completely safe. Accidents and mishaps can occur anytime and no amount of preparation will save one from it. Yes, firefighting comes with its own set of risks, or tough situations, but it is a service one should be proud of. The profession is one of dynamism and passion, and one must be ready to pursue it. There’s also nobility here, hard work, sacrifices and satisfaction of saving lives and property.
I remember there was a blowback (when the earth throws up gases and water and oil) at one of the sites that was ablaze for two months at a stretch. These are valuable experiences to learn from and be better prepared. Over the past decade, I have risen through ranks at the ONGC because I have learnt from every harsh situation.
Breaking gender stereotypes?
I didn’t set out to achieve any tags or break gender stereotypes. But I realised that there’s no profession which is exclusively for men or for women, no skills that either gender can’t master, although it may seem impossible in the beginning. Every person will come with their opinions, but if you are honest about your intentions then don’t let gender norms hold you back from pursuing your passion. Specially when it comes to firefighting, I think more and more women should join the force because of the terrific dynamism here. As governments are encouraging their participation, there is now greater scope. And like any other defence sector, fire departments do command honour and nobility, irrespective of who you are. Frankly, if you ask me, there shouldn’t be a fireman or firewoman but a gender-generic fireperson.
Pursue a profession with passion and honour, forget whether it is for men or women, and you are bound to achieve success.