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Who says girls can't make cars?

By Prasanna D Zore
Last updated on: February 23, 2016 15:18 IST
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Saachi Khandekar and her team from Cummins College of Engineering for Women, PuneTwo young ladies tell Prasanna D Zore/Rediff.com what motivates them to break into the male bastion at the 2016 BAJA SAEINDIA.

"We will prove them (the boys) wrong one day... In fact, we are actually proving them wrong."

Saachi Khandekar of Pune and Rashi Bagadia of Delhi, with their respective all-girls teams of mechanical and automobile engineers, participated in the ninth edition of Mahindra BAJA (pronounced BAHA) SAEINDIA, 2016.

BAJA SAEINDIA is a national competition that encourages college students to design and build a rugged four-wheel, off-roading, vehicle, thereby giving them real life experiences while in college and make them industry-ready.

Saachi Khandekar (in the red suit) with her team-mates as they work on their vehicle. The vehicle had broken down, but their spirits were intact;

IMAGE: Saachi Khandekar (in the red suit) with her team-mates as they work on their vehicle. The vehicle had broken down, but their spirits were intact. Photographs: Prasanna D Zore/Rediff.com

There is dust and metal all around. There is the grunt of the engines, there is the clanging sound of braking wheels, there is exhilaration, cries of jubilation and moans of frustration.

There are boys and there are boys driving prototypes of rugged, single-seat, ramshackle off-road four-wheelers atop a mountain slope for an endurance test and across the five kilometre-long track at the Government of India owned and promoted NATRAX (The National Automotive Test Tracks) Facility at NATRiP (The National Automotive Testing and R&D Infrastructure Project), Peethampur, Indore, Madhya Pradesh.

On this dust and grime-filled race track and dozens of temporary tents acting as pit stops and repair garages, you suddenly come across two all-girls teams, working laboriously inside their pits, repairing their rugged vehicles, brainstorming and getting ready for the next round.

Saachi Khandekar, a student of mechanical engineering at the Cummins College of Engineering for Women, Pune, dressed in a red driver's suit, is coordinating with five of her team-mates.

Their vehicle has broken down during the tough endurance test and since the event is drawing to a close, the girls are discussing how best they can improve their designs the next year.

"We finished the technical test," Saachi says, explaining these were part of the static test where BAJA SAEINDIA representatives check their technical knowledge about the vehicles they have created.

The other part of the event is a dynamic test where each vehicle goes through a five km lap, the most difficult of which is the endurance test where the vehicle has to climb a steep mountain slope.

It's all about team work and bonding. And it was visible at all the pits where vehicles were overhauled or repaired.

IMAGE: It's all about team work and bonding. And it was visible at all the pits where vehicles were overhauled or repaired.

"I did climb the hill slope," says Saachi, who drove the vehicle.

"There was a downhill climb, then there was an uphill climb. It is at the second uphill climb that the vehicle broke down," she says, as her team-mates bend over their vehicle; a couple get busy mending the tyre.

"My rear wheel got locked. There was some issue with the drive shaft," Saachi explains the technical side of her vehicle's breakdown.

Rashi Bagadia (standing, fifth from left), peps up her team as they have a task at hand, which this all-girls team from Delhi is sure they can accomplish.

IMAGE: Rashi Bagadia, standing, fifth from left, peps up her team as they have a task at hand, which this all-girls team from Delhi is sure they can accomplish.

"Three all-girls teams had enrolled for the event, but only two made it to the venue," says Rashi Bagadia of the Indira Gandhi Delhi Technical University for Women," a member of the other all-girls team.

"Please excuse me," says captain Bhavya Poddar, who drives the team vehicle. "I have to get the vehicle up and running quickly."

Captain Bhavya Poddar smiles though her vehicle has broken down.

IMAGE: Bhavya Poddar smiles though her vehicle has broken down. It is being repaired so that she can once again make a dash for the endurance round.

Saachi Khandekar and her team from Cummins College of Engineering for Women, Pune

"This NATRiP track is amazing, even addictive," says Rashi about her second showing at the event. Girls from her college have been a regular here for the last eight years, says Rashi, adding that every outing at BAJA SAEINDIA offers the girls fresh learning.

"You feel bad when you have a breakdown," she says. "But this is all about accepting failure and having the courage to come out with a better product the next year."

"Our aim is to improvise upon a sub-system every year," she says.

"We are united here by our passion for automobiles and engineering," Saachi of the Cummins College says, when asked if she and her team-mates feel odd participating in a mostly male event.

Ask her about the learnings and she quips, "More practice and testing will get us to the top."

Reflecting on the technical aspect of automobile design, Saachi says, "We should make designs that are easy to manufacture. We should take into account manufacturing attributes and then finalise the design."

Ask the girls if they feel they are looked down upon because of their gender by the boys' teams, both Saachi and Rashi say it is a fact of life in their chosen profession, but it is up to them and their team members to break such stereotypes that consider designing automobiles as a male-only bastion.

Saachi's team-mates fix a tyre that had come off during the endurance test. Though they are not sure if they will complete the task before the end of the four-hour competition, they believe in a never say give up spirit.

IMAGE: Saachi's team-mates fix a tyre that has come off during the endurance test. Though they are not sure if they will complete the task before the end of the four-hour competition, they believe in a never say give up spirit.

"Haan, suna hai, lekin ab aadat pad gayi hai (Yes, we have heard that girls can't do it, but we have become used to it now)."

"Instead of getting bogged down by such remarks," says Rashi, "rhe real fun will be proving them wrong." Then she adds, "We are proving them wrong."

"It makes no difference to us," says Saachi, shrugging off the gender bias that shows up when they come across so many teams made up of boys from across India's engineering colleges.

"Our work should show, not our gender," she says. Ask her if she will be here in 2017, and pat comes the reply, "Yes, definitely."

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Prasanna D Zore / Rediff.com At BAJA SAEINDIA, Indore