Mohali, Nov. 24 (WFS) -- Watching Madhuri Bansal adjust her gold-rimmed spectacles and switch on the computer at a TV tube manufacturing factory, you realize that Punjab's women are finally moving on.
Eight years ago, advertisements for jobs in the factory where Bansal works in Mohali, in India's northern province Punjab, blatantly declared "No Women."
Yet today Bansal is no exception in Punjab's electronics industry. Adjacent to her table sits Sharda Trehan, dressed smartly in jeans and a pullover, holding independent charge of her multiplexing area, an epitome of confidence and efficiency.
Their factory has 25 women in the executive category and others at all levels, as operators, production assistants and supervisors. The coil assembly section boasts a 100 percent female workforce.
The minimum qualification for work here is a school-leaving certificate coupled with a two-year diploma in electronic engineering. Many of the young women value the independence which the job provides as much as the salary. A large number live in rented rooms, far from parents who live in other towns. This is unusual for middle-class provincial women, known for their cocooned existence.
Staying alone does not bother them and they have no unsavory incidents to relate. Says Poonam Kaur, operator, "We had trouble finding rented accommodation initially, but no longer. Now the neighbors are neither shocked nor look down upon us."
As for the factory, they are all praise for the management and fellow workers. Sexual exploitation? They say they have never experienced it. Gender-based discrimination is unheard of and there is no preferential treatment either. Trehan insists there is, "No favoritism, no bias."
Yet, there are mixed reactions among male colleagues. Says Colonel S.S. Bedi, Additional General Manager, "Where field jobs are concerned women have a handicap. But they compensate by being more trustworthy. They are likely to stick to a factory, rather than move from one to the other. And in the production process they are better."
Engineer Vipin Sharma says women workers are more disciplined. His immediate subordinate is supervisor Indu Mehra, a woman in charge of eight workers.
Mehra has no difficulty in handling her staff, even though these workers are notoriously unruly. But that she is the odd one out is clear from her limited interaction with her colleagues. During lunch break she skips her meal, rather than share it with her boss or juniors and set tongues wagging.
Most factory managers believe that women are "safe" only in a majority. As a consequence, one finds them hurdled in a common area, in quality control or the assembly section.
Bedi says, "As a rule we never ask women to stay overtime, but if we do, it's always in a group."
Odd hours is the crux of the issue. Factories which run around the clock do not employ women, as they may refuse to work late shifts. Even if they do work at night, who would be responsible for their safety? asks management.
All this represents a mind set, for women do work in Indian hospitals, hotels, airports and newspaper offices. But in Punjab's electronics industry women work an eight-hour day shift only, knocking off by 5 p.m.
While women are preferred in electronics, especially the telecommunications industry, as the work involves handling minute devices requiring their "delicate touch," sexist attitudes prohibit their entry into heavy engineering mechanical industries.
"Are women equipped to handle mechanical jobs? Take a color picture tube for instance. It weighs 30 kilograms and has to be manually lifted," argues N.S. Virk, an engineer in charge of the furnace area.
Overall, Punjab has a dismal female workforce participation rate of 6.78 percent compared to the all-India rate of 22.73 percent. According to the 1991 Census, while over 650,000 men worked in the manufacturing, processing, servicing and repairs industries, the number of women workers in this sector was barely 18,000.
Interestingly, the sharpest criticism of women workers comes from a woman, Deputy General Manager Personnel, Ramanjit, who works in a factory which makes capacitors and computers and where the female-male worker ratio is 1:2.5.
Says Ramanjit, "Women have no right to seek special concessions. Yes, their growth prospects are stifled, as after marriage their efficiency nosedives. Perhaps the family pressures are too much. But they have to be more determined for they are first-generation workers. Not only are women less willing to accept challenges, they also resist change."
Family responsibilities do seem to handicap women. Marriage and children entail a double burden.
While single women rarely contribute to the family income, money seems to become a dire necessity once they marry.
For Beant Kaur, whose husband is a clerk in the electricity department or Radha, who shoulders the burden of her husband's family, the job is essential. An additional salary cannot be "squandered away" to give the woman a badly needed rest or provide full-time attention to children.
Irrespective of physical health, the women work until the last stages of pregnancy and go back to work when the baby is barely three months old. Maternity leave is just 84 days. When they leave their infants at daycare facilities, they are stricken by guilt. Yet this is overcome by a fierce desire to provide a better life for their children.
A solution would be daycare facilities within the factory. Only one factory, Punjab Communications Ltd., provides this. It boasts of an attractive center, with separate rooms and cribs for children under the age of one. Food and milk for the children is free.
But for most women, life is a mechanized routine that begins at 5 a.m. These human equivalents of machines work until 10 p.m., including an eight-hour stint at the factory. Do their husbands share housework? "Yes, they do certain odd jobs like cutting vegetables or looking after the children. But the burden remains ours," they wail in unison.
The monotonous factory routine may be no different from domestic drudgery but the job does enhance their "value" in the eyes of their husbands. In comparison to their peers, who are homemakers only, they feel privileged and secure.
Says Neelam Kaushal, "Nowadays life is so insecure. Any mishap can occur. God forbid it if it does, I can at least look after myself and my children."
Yet, take the case of Shashi (not her real name). She dutifully hands over her salary to her husband every month. But he still tortures her physically and mentally, in connivance with his parents. Her working status does little to alleviate her trauma.
Working women in Punjab suffer from an exaggerated sense of insecurity, irrespective of economic independence. Women hand over salaries to husbands who invariably manage the money.
Would they care for a way out? Not really, the women say. For the job offers them respite from dull, colorless lives. It is the only means of getting away from the confinement of four walls and provides an opportunity to mix with others. For those caught up in extended families, it implies an escape from the barbs of in-laws.
Says Kanta Guleria, "What do you think we can achieve by staying at home except back-bite and gossip?" By now their workload has become a way of life.
Positive or not, their new-found role is here to stay. And a quiet social revolution is on among provincial middle class women.