Railway Board chief Jaya Varma Sinha on making workplace gender-sensitive

Sinha is the first woman CEO and chair of the Railway Board


The railways conjure an image of strong-limbed men toiling and grunting while lifting heavy iron equipment under the hot sun to lay down the tracks. But the world’s fourth largest railway network is now headed by a woman.

We are fortunate to be living in times when gender barriers in the physical world are dropping. So let there be no barriers remaining in the mind.

For Jaya Varma Sinha, who took over as the first woman chief executive officer and chairperson of the Railway Board last September 1, ascribing gender characteristics to the profession may seemingly amount to profiling.

“Railways worldwide have traditionally been a male-dominated sector as it demands 24x7 operations,” she tells THE WEEK. “However, working in the railways for more than 36 years and seeing women across ranks perform have taught me that skill sets, dedication and competence are gender-agnostic. I am proud and honoured that I have this opportunity to lead this wonderful organisation at a transformative stage. I am thrilled to be part of this journey. This is the empowering decade of naari shakti (women power), and may their tribe increase!”

The Railway Board is the apex panel that manages various verticals of the country’s rail transport, and Sinha has experience in most. Her leadership has been crucial in the ongoing modernisation of the railways and its infrastructure, and in the launching of the Vande Bharat trains.

Nearly one lakh women are working in the Indian Railways, including those in critical roles such as loco pilots, guards, station masters, track maintainers and fitters. “There is no job in the railways that women are not performing with distinction, and this number is continuously increasing,” says Sinha. “We are committed to making the workplace gender-sensitive and -conducive, with a view to encouraging women to continue taking up challenging assignments.”

While Sinha was praised for her public handling and communication skills in the aftermath of the Balasore train accident that claimed 296 lives last June, her entry into the Railways was accidental.

“My parents were the wind beneath my [wings],” says Sinha. “Though my father was a civil servant, I was keen to pursue a major in physics. However, I missed the cut-off that year and ended up doing master’s in psychology (from Allahabad University) instead. That allowed me to think of the civil services as an option and here we are!”

She has crossed many a milestone in her career. During her stint as railway adviser in the High Commission of India in Bangladesh, the Maitree Express from Kolkata to Dhaka began operations. It was also during her tenure as additional member (traffic transportation) that the railways clocked all-time high growth rates in freight. Her next assignment was as member (operations and business development).

Sinha, a keen photographer, takes pride in women being natural multi-taskers. “Women do have a natural aptitude to multi-task and it does help,” she says. “However, it is the focus that gets the job done. Remaining involved, focused and committed to the task is, like I said, gender-neutral.”

Asked if she faced any struggles on her way up, Sinha brushes it off: “Just the usual ones, nothing really that deserves a mention.”

She wants all girls and boys to pursue their dreams, irrespective of gender norms. “Whatever be the interest, they must give it their best shot and endeavour to achieve their true potential, as well as economic independence,” she asserts. “We are fortunate to be living in times when gender barriers in the physical world are dropping. So let there be no barriers remaining in the mind.”

And does it feel special to be the first woman CEO of the Railway Board? “It has certainly given me a lot of attention,”says Sinha. “I feel really honoured and humbled by the opportunity. There are huge expectations from the railways. Indian Railways remains the lifeline of the country, and we hope that with the thrust that we are receiving from the government, we would be able to fulfill those expectations.”