Breaking Barriers and Blazing Paths

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An exclusive interview with Reshma Nilofer Naha – India’s First Woman Marine pilot

We – women often tend to question ourselves and doubt our abilities. This, in my opinion, is the toughest fight. The fight with oneself. The whole world can stand against you and pull you down or say that you can’t do something. But, if a woman thinks that she can, she will and must do it. Nothing is impossible and even the sky is not the limit – said Reshma Nilofer Naha – India’s First and Only Woman Marine pilot.

Born to humble parents in Chennai, Naha has always been a dreamer. A dream to keep herself different.  A first-generation seafarer – Naha as a student only, wished to have a unique career and not be a part of the rat race for ‘popular’ engineering courses. This desire was reciprocated from the universe when one day a newspaper advertisement informed her about a fully sponsored dual competency B.E. Marine Technology (from BIT Ranchi) program.

The journey had started. Completing the course, she was eventually placed with Danish shipping giant, the then A P Moller and Maersk. Sailing on some of their largest container ships for a few years. In 2011, she joined Kolkata Port Trust in hope of becoming a part of the Calcutta Hugli Pilot Service, the erstwhile Bengal Pilot Service. She qualified as a Pilot early 2018 after 6.5 years of training real hard.

The feeling of being THE FIRST is great but I would say that I have mixed feelings. While, it does feel exhilarating to have achieved a goal and it is exciting to be living a dream. But it’s also a lonely unpleasant and tough journey clearing the forest all by yourself. It has not been an easy journey. It had started with criticism, discouragement, unwelcoming gestures and in hostile conditions. However, I believed and also lived by it that “if you have the perseverance, tenacity and determination, you will work hard to become competent and professional to be eventually respected, taken seriously and welcomed”.

Talking about her river which is a tough one with several sandbars and bends, Naha sharing her on-the-job experiences said that it takes determination, guts, mental and physical acumen and nerves of steel to be a pilot in the River Hugli. Ganges, with her ever shifting bars, dwindling depths, bends and narrow channel and the strength of tide, is considered as one the toughest pilotage waters in the World. We all keep mentioning here that a pilot learns on the job each day until he/she retires so it is a learning experience each day. This job is very satisfying and has no monotony. Each day, each ship (even if a regular ship) behaves differently in the varying conditions.

All said and done, being the first WOMAN isn’t a cake-walk even after years into the work. However good you are at your work; the masters are not sure.  Even today, when I enter the bridge they do check if there was another male pilot coming after me. Thinking I am a trainee or a very junior pilot who was working under a senior’s supervision. What has been boosting my energy is that I have managed to win them all. After the task, the apprehensive Masters have come back with words of appreciation along with a confession that they didn’t expect to receive me as their pilot and didn’t think I could do it and worried but it did go well!

Naha’s efforts were recognized not only by the Mater but even the Government of India. She was conferred the ‘Nari Shakti Puraskar’ by the President of India. It is the highest civilian honour for women in India.

Throwing some light on the women employees of the Shipping Industry, Naha said that there are now a substantial number of women in the industry unlike until a decade back. The need now is to first aim at retaining and keeping the existing women in the industry. Put the measures and policies in-place that will make their life transitions easier. When the women in it are comfortable, that will draw more women automatically. On the sidelines, she also expressed concern about the Industry’s safety standards.

Safety scenario, we are far behind. We don’t even meet basic safety standards yet. All are working towards achieving this soon enough, but the time is ticking. There needs to be a simple perspective that requires only an attitude change – The value of life. If that’s there, everything else will follow.

Looking back, she thanks her stars for being kind and keeping her in the right place at the right time. She says: “I love this job and love where I am right now. The journey so far hasn’t been a bed of roses but time-to-time encouragement from all quarters fuel to my zeal. And it is a promise I made to myself and to you all, that I shall ensure that the next lady who will pursue this path wouldn’t be subject to the difficulties I had to go through”.

Sea News Feature, September 6