Author: Dr K Ganapathy
Hon Distinguished Professor The Tamilnadu Dr MGR Medical University; Emeritus Professor, National Academy of Medical Sciences; Past President, Telemedicine Society of India & Neurological Society of India; Director Apollo Telemedicine Networking Foundation & Apollo Tele Health Services, India Website: www.kganapathy.in
When I was asked to write a blog on women from India who have made extraordinary contributions to society, I was very surprised. Being a desi, a totally “Made in India” product, I had in the last seven decades not thought twice about the gender of any super achiever in India. When I was an Asst Professor of Neurosurgery at the globally renowned 187-year-old Madras Medical College, my unit chief was Prof T S Kanaka, celebrated as Asia’s first neurosurgeon , while the dean was also a woman, as was the Director of Medical education, the Vice Chancellor, the Health Secretary, and even the Chief Minister of the state!
From 1983 I have been part of Apollo Hospitals, one of the world’s largest corporate health care providers. Though founded by the patriarch Dr Prathap C Reddy, it is his four daughters (see images below) who have ensured that this mega conglomerate is setting standards for other countries to follow. I belong to the 1968 batch of the Madras Medical College. When one of our classmates, Dr Sherin Devaskar, was elected as President of the American Pediatric Society none of us even commented that she was of female gender. Indeed, most of the achievers in our batch are women. It is just taken for granted. We are gender agnostic !!
As early as 1949, Hansa Mehtha was appointed as Vice chancellor of the Baroda University. I wonder how many countries had women Vice Chancellors back then, and we were called the “third world” ! It is only now that I realise that the rest of the world has a long way to go before they accept gender neutrality. Scores of women from India have been featured in global rankings, as entrepreneurs, CEO’s of Fortune 50 companies, in the Forbes list of world’s 100 most powerful women, as Heads of some of the world’s largest banks, Chief Justices of High Courts, Supreme Court judges, Governors and Chief Ministers of states larger than most countries of the world, as Deputy Governors of the Reserve Bank of India, Chief Economist of the World Bank, and as Chief Scientist of the WHO, and so the list goes on. Indian women have gone to the Artic and Antarctic. Recently UK-based Captain Harpreet Chandi, of Indian origin, reached the South Pole after a 700 mile trek in 40 days.
Lucknow-born Hashima Hasan played a major role in the design and launch of the $10bn James Webb Space Telescope. The landing of the Perseverance rover on the Red Planet following its perilous descent through the Martian atmosphere was facilitated by two women of Indian origin, Vandi Verma and Swati Mohan. Yet another, Bhavya Lal, recently took over as Associate Administrator for the Office of Technology, Policy and Strategy NASA, one of the highest posts in NASA. Nearer home there are several Director level women scientists heading critical teams dealing with human and interplanetary missions, including Ritu Karidhal, Nandini Harinath, TK Anuradha, and VR Lalithambika. And Kalpana Chawla (1962 – 2003) was the first Indian-American astronaut and first Indian woman in space. Sadly, on February 1, 2003, the U.S. space shuttle Columbia with a seven-member crew that included Chawla, disintegrated in flames over central Texas shortly before it was scheduled to land at Cape Canaveral in Florida.
The now-septuagenarian Air Marshal Padma Bandopadhyay (with whom I once had the privilege of interacting) went to the North Pole to study the effects of extreme cold. This was in the 20th century. She was the world’s first 3-star officer of any Air Force. Dr. Aditi Pant an oceanographer was a part of the third Indian expedition to Antarctica in 1983-84. Mangala Mani was the first Indian woman scientist to live in Antarctica for 403 Days. Women have now become Lt Generals in the Army. Flight Lieutenants Bhawana Kanth, Mohana Singh and Avani Chaturvedi broke the glass ceiling when they became the first Indian female fighter pilots to fly solo in the MIG-21 Bison. Today there are 10 women fighter pilots. The Indian Navy recently commissioned the first Women Combat Aviators on Warships. Sub-Lieutenants Kumudini Tyagi and Riti Singh are training to operate a host of sensors on board Navy multi-role helicopters.
Woman prime minister, woman president, woman finance minister, and woman defence minister (in which other country will you find a 4-star general, admiral and air chief marshal in uniform clicking their heels and saluting the Raksha Mantri [Defence Minister], who incidentally was a woman). India’s first woman defence minister sat in the rear seat behind the pilot, wearing the pilot’s G-suite in a frontline combat jet Sukhoi 30 MKI. We also have nationally renowned woman dacoits, like Phoolan Devi (known as the Bandit Queen), who later became a Member of Parliament.
These few examples, however, do not represent the Indian woman. The average faceless Indian woman is a CEO par excellence. She manages every single portfolio Finance, Home affairs, External Affairs, Health, Security, Education, Transport, Entertainment and a myriad other departments. Unwept, unhonoured and unsung, these women toil day in and day out in joint families, giving up everything, so that their lord and master (as per traditional Indian folklore) become pseudo accomplishers. Alas, home-makers never bask in the limelight. For every single Indian woman who became CEO of Pepsi Cola, there are a hundred thousand Indian women out there, who alone have been responsible for ensuring that their “Man” is able to concentrate on his blog, without his having to bother about anything else - on a totally dependable auto pilot mode. May their tribe increase and may the roles be reversed soon !
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