Teenage is hardly the age when women can dream of changing the course of history. Particularly when there is incessant opposition from the family to letting them work. Even more-so when the education has been from a school that may not boast of a long list of accomplished alumni.

At the Sanand factory of Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages (HCCB), a bunch of women are breaking age-old rules and rewriting them. They are now becoming an inspiration for their peers and, within families and communities, emerging as role models. Yet, each could well be the proverbial girl next door.

In the extended family of Simran Fakir, women were not allowed to study once they became teenagers. But Simran, 19, was determined. With her father’s support, she completed high school and enrolled for a technical course at the Industrial Training Institute (ITI) Saraspur, Ahmedabad. She is now the first female forklift operator in HCCB and also a part of the factory team, 40 per cent of which comprises women.

Simran Fakir operating a forklift

Simran is almost dismissive of her struggle and accomplishment. Her everyday battle was two-pronged – at home she was battling social customs that did not allow her to study. At the institute, she was competing with her class of 40 to be among the best. Only two women from her class, could make it through the selection process that included three rounds of interviews, to join HCCB. She emerged trumps at both places.

“I have faced many challenges as a kid and have overcome them. All credit to my father for what I could achieve,” Simran said.

Her father is a worker in a nearby factory and despite his modest earning for the three children, he ensured that Simran completed her education. Her sister and brother did not take a liking to books, and now realise that Simran has done the right thing.

Simran Fakir

As a kid, she used to ride a bicycle and, occasionally, a scooty. She had never heard of a forklift, far less seeing one, which she now operates at the factory. It is a job that has traditionally been the preserve of men, and today she is enjoying it. At work for about a year now, she also shares part of her earning with her father.

“No one in the family is complaining anymore and everyone seeks my opinion on various issues. The way they look at me in the family has changed,” Simran says.

The way she is looked at in the community where she lives may also have changed. She is the first woman in her family as well as neighbourhood who, at 19, is not married and now stands on her own feet.

There are several others like her at the 46-acre factory in Sanand, Gujarat, among one of the most modern factories Coca-Cola has anywhere in the world. It has over 40 per cent women among its employees and benchmarks itself among the best globally, on that count too.

First women forklift operators

Simran and her classmate at ITI, Sarita Ravishankar, are the first two women forklift operators at HCCB. Sarita had thought of enrolling in a college after high school. Encouraged by her father, she chose ITI and today, Simran and Sarita are working shoulder to shoulder with the men in the company.

Sarita Ravishkar

When Sarita told her father, who works in a local pharmaceutical company, that she had landed a job with HCCB and would occasionally have to do night shifts, it raised a question or two in his mind. He visited the factory himself and saw the arrangements. Sarita says that her father made inquiries and found that the women could take office transport to be dropped home. That assured him of his daughter’s safety.

Work is exciting. “As a kid, I used to ride a bicycle. And here I am now driving a forklift. It is a huge change for me,” Sarita said.

The forklift helps pick up products to be loaded to delivery trucks. These could be typically one ton in weight, occasionally more. Sarita now operates the machine with the finesse of a seasoned professional.

When she was going through multiple rounds of interviews for selection, Nirali Damani knew it was her best chance to work for “such a big company.” It fueled her dream even further as she did well in her interviews. She was also asked if she was comfortable doing the night shift and she confirmed that she could do it.

Nirali Damani

The first call she made when she got the job, was to her father “Really?! I cannot believe it,” he said. That made her the first woman in her family to work in a production line.

With the opportunities that Nirali has, she now wants to work hard to be a team leader. For that, she wants to learn every process on the line so that she is confident of handling any situation.

“I had never dreamt of working at such a company. The women are just like the men and we love the way we are treated,” Nirali says.

Slow process of change

The change did not happen all at once. It was a process that started several years ago.

In the early stages, parents had to be convinced. “We invited parents to see the factory and the safety processes that were in place for everyone. Once they were convinced with the measures that were in place, the girls did not need too much of convincing,” Factory Manager Girish Chhablani says.

Production and Maintenance Manager Hirak Raval has seen the change from the days that he was at the nearby factory at Goblej. “Women and men working together makes for great teamwork. You get different perspectives on the same issue this way.”

A woman who has also seen the change first-hand is Silkey Solanki, now heading quality at Sanand. She remembers the days when she was often the only woman at the factory. As a microbiologist, it was normal for her to go to the factory to review the materials to keep an eye on each product being made.

Silkey Solanki at the factory

She joined the HCCB Goblej factory in 2008 and, for a particular process in 2011, she was leading a team of 27 operators, as employees working on the line at HCCB are called. All of them were men. There were times when she was the only woman at the factory during the night shift.

“During the initial days, I was hesitant. There were no girls in the factory and I was not sure of how to deal with all the men,” Silkey recalls. With her work, she earned the respect of colleagues, several of whom were much older.

Now that she has moved to the Sanand factory, which started operations in 2018, the scenario has changed.

Heroes driving the change

For the women at the Sanand factory, it may have been a small step. For their families and the communities in which they live, it could be a bigger change that is unfolding. Since they are considered heroes in their respective families and localities, their opinions resonate with people.

These women- most of whom are just beginning their careers, could be ushering in a change India’s manufacturing sector may not have seen before. It has begun with changing the minds of their immediate families and friends. The impact they have on the families’ earnings is beginning to show. The social change that it could bring about will take some time to show up for everyone.

“I have been telling the women in my family and in our neighbourhood that education is very important. They should stand up on their own feet,” Sarita says. Seeing her in her Coca-Cola uniform, people believe her even more.

“My sister’s daughter wants to be like me. She is too small to realise what I do but she is excited when I tell her,” Simran says.

These women are champions. They are also the change.