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Mansi Khandelwal

IWB Blogger

North India’s 1st Female To Own A Petrol Pump, Nirmal Takes Us On Her 65 Yr Long Journey

  • IWB Post
  •  August 29, 2019

Hailing from Agra, seeing women fill fuel at the petrol pumps was a rare sight. Why do we make professions gender-bound? Don’t capabilities define success?

Well, then I heard about Nirmal Sethi. Standing strong at 65, she is the first female transporter and petrol pump owner in North India. Born in 1951 in the small town of Hamirpur in Himachal Pradesh, Nirmal ji’s professional journey traces back to 1971 when she started her bus agency Sangam Highways.

To know more about the roller-coaster journey of Nirmal Sethi, we spoke to her over the phone. Here’s what she shared.

1st female petrol pump owner

Being the third of eleven kids, what was your best learning as a kid that helped you become who you are today?

A child’s talent is not based on his/her gender. My sisters and I, we had always been raised as equals to our brothers. Never did my father differentiate between us. My father was raising us like the boys in our family. He had been my biggest support and had always told me that no work was big or small. He understood my talent and instilled in me the strength to move forward in life without getting scared.

I remember when I was in the third grade, my father wrote something on a piece of paper and asked me to go on the stage and speak. Though I had a terrible stage fear, I listened to him and went. That was when I learned how to face the crowd without fear.

Later, when he asked me what I want to do after completing school, I replied: “Mai vo kaam karna chahti hu jsime aage aage tak koi ladki nahi hai.”

1st female petrol pump owner

Owning a transport company is still a male-dominated profession. What were the biggest challenges you faced?

Honestly, I did not face any challenges on the work front. Of course, there were struggles that I faced because of the shallow mindset of few people. I remember I went to my neighbors’ place to speak to him, but the lady did not come out and sent tea through her servant saying she did not want to keep relations with me because I only spoke to men and went to the petrol pump and all sort of the rubbish arguments. Similarly, there had been times when I heard ‘Aurato ko yeh kaam nahi karna chahiye,’ but these suggestions never deterred my courage, and I kept on doing whatever I wanted to. In 1971, I launched my company Sangam Highways, with one bus traveling from Dharamsala to Chintpurni and back. I was the first woman transporter of the state.

I did all the work required on the buses. Starting from getting inter-state permits to going to the workshops, I did it all. Sometimes I would just take my car and hide by the roadside to conduct a surprise check on the bus.

Already in awe of her energy and courage, I could sense how happy she was sharing the most beautiful moments of her life. “I saw an Indian Oil dealership advertisement in the newspaper in 1981 and went for the interview. When I reached there, I only saw men around me. Scared I was about to leave the place. I called up my husband, and he said, “Bhaagna toh kayro ka kaam hai, tum daav lagao, gir jaogi ya udh jaogi.”

1st female petrol pump owner

K.C Sethi and Nirmal Sethi

“These words across the phone were all that I needed to hear. I went inside, and the interviewers asked me whether I know what have I applied for!

I told them straight away that if Indira Gandhi can run the nation, I can definitely run a petrol pump.

They were stunned seeing my confidence. A year later when I went to enquire about the result and met the Chairman in Delhi, he said, “All I have heard is that most of the women in Himachal stay at home. But your courage is highly appreciable. It was Diwali time, and he told me to celebrate the festival to the fullest, and I knew that I have cleared it.”

Were there any doubts in the minds of the dealers looking at a woman managing a mmale-dominatedprofession?

I have heard plenty of things about me but never on my face. Nobody ever said anything wrong to me. There have been times when I used to return from the pump as late as 9 p.m. In fact, what I have heard is women coming up to me and telling me that their husbands come home and scold them stating my example. A lady came and said, “Madam aap kaise ye sab karte ho. Mere husband muje ghar aakar daat te hai ki maine kuch nahi kara aur aap hai jo ghar bhi sambhaalti hai aur kaam bhi.”

These words and all the love and support I have received from my family have made me who I am today.

1st female petrol pump owner

What additional facilities do you provide to the women employees at your pump?

Apart from providing them with a healthy workplace, I also take care of their children’s education. The ones who are in school, I buy the books, and for the older ones, I employ them at the pump if they wish.

What is your advice to women who wish to enter your field?

I want to tell them that there is no work that is gender bound. If they have the will and trust within themselves, they will taste success sooner or later. Doosro ki soch badalne ke liye pehle apni soch badalni padhti hai.

I feel glad to share that today a few women have applied for jobs and I will be interviewing them tomorrow.

1st female petrol pump owner

Nirmal Sethi with her daughter, Shagun, and Khushboo

All of us women have learned so much from you. What is that one thing you have learned from your daughters?

I have learned from them to never lose hope and faith. It feels proud as a mother to see them as fearless as I am.

What defines success in your field?

I think what has worked for me is that I have always spoken politely to others. I have never mistreated the bus drivers, conductors, and other dealers. How we behave with others is really important in any business. I even take feedback from my customers who come to the pump. ‘Be nice to people, and people will be nice to you.’

Describe to us your craziest day at work.

A few years back, I was traveling from Hoshiarpur to Bawa Balka Nath temple in a Punjab Roadways bus. The conductor thought that I was the owner of the bus and made me sit in front. A few hours later, the driver left the steering of the bus because he was heavily drunk and I started shouting at him. He did not listen, and the bus overturned. I was badly bruised but since it was a roadways bus and not mine I couldn’t do much.

She who puts fuel in everyone’s car in Kangra area, I asked her about the person who fuels her life.

Nirmal Sethi: It would be my daughters and sons-in-law.

1st female petrol pump owner

Third from left is Nirmal Sethi who was the only female to get selected for Akhil Bhartiya Seva Dal from Himachal Pradesh

One advice that has fuelled courage in you?

My father and husband have always told me to not worry about the world. If they are with you, good, if not then just have courage to yourself. Whatever we think is what we become. So I have always thought that I can do anything and everything I wish.

One food that fuels your energy?

Matar Paneer and Himachal cuisine are my absolute favorite.

One book that fuels your spirit?

I love reading inspiring women biographies and religious books.

Reading stories about women defying odds and actually getting to interact with some like Nirmal ji, is the fuel to take on new roads. Hope to meet you in person very soon!


This article was first published on June 14, 2017.

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