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Dr Chandrani Prasad Verma, India’s first female mining engineer, has opened up the path for other women in the country to take up mining careers, taking large steps for everyone. From a young age she decided she would follow in her father’s footsteps although women were not allowed to take mining degrees in the 1990s and are still forbidden by law from going underground. Chandrani has not allowed anything to impede her in her chosen profession and says her motto is never doubt your calibre and move ahead with determination once you set your goal – come what may do not stop! She’s realised that as time goes on there will be more and more expectations placed on her from every quarter and she won’t be able to satisfy all of them even if she wants to – Because you have responsibilities as a mother, wife, daughter as well as a mining engineer.
How did mining come to you? How did you choose an offbeat, unconventional mining as a career?
I was born and brought up in a mining environment. My father is a mining engineer now retired. Curiosity about his work made me choose mining as a career. I always did what I liked. I used to put on my father’s mining shoes, gumboots and shirt to feel like him. I used to imagine myself going to work.
After finishing school my sister advised me to join diploma courses for engineering and there I chose the mining branch of engineering as my career. I’ve never looked back and continue on my journey.
What is your experience of working in the mining sector?
I am working with research professionals and there are many things to learn. My job involves work on different industrial projects and we always bring some changes or new ideas that either develop the technology or help the mining industry to resolve their issues. We work as consultants to the mining industry in resolving design and stability issues. I specialise in high wall mining design. My work involves stope design and stability analysis through numerical modelling including barricade modelling. It’s a great experience and I love providing solutions.
Have you/do you encounter much discrimination?
Yes occasionally. At a few places I felt it but right now I am working as the Senior Scientist at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research – Central Institute of Mining and Fuel Research (CSIR-CIMFR) and here the system is totally free from gender discrimination.
In India under the 1952 Mines Act woman are not allowed to go underground. In general mining is considered as a hazardous and tough job. It involves working in dusty and harsh environments. So there is a view that why should women opt for such harsh work?
Some think we should go for softer options, white collar jobs. Being in a male dominated job dealing with workers at grass root levels may involve difficulty on account of bad language and therefore some think that girls should not enter this area.
Have you had mentors and sponsors that helped you on the way?
Yes I’ve had a few mentors at different places and at different times in my life. During my studies my parents and sisters kept me motivated when others used to say “What’s a girl going to do in mining? You should change your branch from mining to electronics or computing.” It was Mr. A. K. Sahu who did not hesitate to allot me a mining branch in Diploma course at Govt. Polytechnic, Nagpur.
Another person who really helped me is Mr. A. K. Ghosh, Ex Dy. Director, CSIR-CIMFR. He gave me the chance to work as Project Assistant in one of his projects at CIMFR in 2001. He gave me a working platform from where I could rise. He always encouraged me. I am thankful to him.
Could you share one or two challenges you’ve experienced in your career and how you overcame them?
An instability issue occurred in one of the mine sites and I was the company’s only representative to investigate the real cause. I had to answer to higher authorities. I reached the site and inspected each and every aspect of the issue, discussed it with officials and submitted a lucid and satisfactory report.
During my PhD I had to prepare 300 coal specimens but the lab attendant was not at all supportive and wanted to charge me more money to do the work believing I couldn’t manage on my own and so then and there I decided to do all cutting, polishing and UCS determination on my own.
I worked in the laboratory in harsh summer conditions with no air conditioning. But I enjoyed my PhD work and spent about one year working on coal and POP specimens to evaluate the effect of length on web pillars and later formulated the optimum web pillar strength estimation methodology under the guidance of my senior colleague Dr. John Loui P. Together we developed design guidelines for future high wall mining operations in my country.
What are you passionate about in your work?
I am passionate about the new challenges and problems we receive and a chance to resolve these as a geotechnical expert. I enjoy my work. I love to engross myself in work which requires dedication and whose findings become a turning point and makes the work substantial. When a particular design works in the field it gives a sense of accomplishment.
What would you love to do next?
I would like to develop a methodology or new technology for efficient mineral extraction from deeper reserves in a cost-effective manner. Underground mines still need improvements in terms of production and productivity as we’re lagging in coal production from underground mines, which needs to increase but not at the cost of safety as these should go hand in hand.
What is one thing you wish you’d been told when you were starting out that you know now?
That there will be more and more expectations with time from every corner and you won’t be able to satisfy each of them even if you want to. Because you have responsibilities as a mother, wife, daughter as well as mining engineer.
At times I have to move a bit slower to strike a balance between work and family. But I’ve learned a lot along my journey from a budding engineer to where I am now and still the learning process is going on. There are people who give you hard time but GOD always send his messengers to help you out.
Do you sit on a board? If not would you like to?
No. Yes why not.
What is your opinion in the women on boards’ debate? Are you pro quotas or against them?
I am against quotas. A board needs many qualities to function as a whole and women should be selected for their ability to understand a problem from a different perspective. They should be selected for their management skills.
At CSIR-CIMFR the ladder is there and we get opportunities and we can get ahead here clearly if we work hard.
Do you believe women in mining groups can help to change the image of the industry and make the sector more attractive to women?
Yes definitely, women in mining groups can help to change the image of the industry because a woman possesses a high Emotional Quotient and sincerity naturally.
Any advice to young women starting out in their careers?
Never doubt your calibre and move ahead with determination once you set your goal. Come what may, do not stop. Sometimes when you doubt yourself others will do the same and you end up in a mess.
What challenges have you experienced by virtue of working in an industry that is predominantly male? Do you feel you have had to adapt to ‘fit’ the industry?
I don’t need to adapt to fit the industry as my childhood was spent in a mining environment. But definitely in a male-dominated industry you need to really work hard to prove yourself. Although times have changed and women are now being accepted in different executive roles but the pace is quite slow.
How do you find the work/life balance?
Really very difficult to manage when you have a nuclear family. It is a juggling act. I had good support from my husband, who is also a mining engineer and from my parents who helped me a lot in my son’s early years. During child birth and a few years afterward was difficult to manage and was not a piece of cake but it’s become easier since then.
Have you any hobbies or pastimes you would like to tell us about?
Yes I love singing and I can sing at least 150 songs with each and every word known to me. I love to read books – simple story books like short stories by O. Henry, small detective novels and a few selected books on spiritual advancement and positive thinking like “Dare to Dream” by Shruti Panse and “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho. I also have a fascination for cooking traditional food.
Anything else that you feel is important that you would like to share?
In the future I would like to work for women’s empowerment and help get women into executive posts.
I’d also like to see changes to the Mines Act, which only allows women to work at open cast mines between 6am and 7pm and forbids them from going underground. That has to be fought. Fortunately the mines I visit I can go underground. It will change.