She's a woman in a man's world. On a day-to-day basis, she deals with short-tempered lorry drivers and cleaners, irate customers and a delivery system made complicated by stringent traffic rules. And she does so with ï¿½lan. She is Padmini Iyengar, who takes care of the nitty-gritty of a family-owned water supply business in water-starved Chennai.
The city of Chennai simply doesn't have enough water for its 6 million people. After a deficient monsoon in 2003, piped water supply was stopped. Currently, the city needs 870 MLD (million liters a day); and 125 MLD is supplied by lorries, both private and municipal corporation-owned. While there are about 1,000 private tankers plying in Chennai, reputed water supply companies number about 50. Today, a tank-load of 12,000 liters of water from a private supplier costs anything between Rs 900 and 1,100 (1US$=Rs 46).
The Vijaya Water Supply company has been in business for about four years now. What made her take up such an unusual job? It was a collective family decision, says Iyengar. "I'm only part of a team." Her brother-in-law and a partner make up the other members of the team. But to Iyengar falls the task of actually running the show. (She refuses to reveal her age, preferring to be described as middle-aged.)
Lorry drivers are, by reputation, tough customers. They're infamous for their bad language and foul temper. And water is an essential commodity. Delay and difficulties in procurement are inevitable. Tempers run very high on this issue and every order is potential trouble.
How does Iyengar see it? Not as trouble. She takes a different viewpoint. She sees it from the drivers' angle, and that of the customer. The drivers are on the highway in the heat of the day, at the peak of summer, for long hours, fetching water from outlying villages and neighboring districts, she points out. Then, they're awake for most of the night, delivering the water. Traffic rules do not allow private tankers to ply within the city between 7 am and 12 noon, and between 4 pm and 8 pm.
Naturally, their tempers are frayed and if they're irritable it's understandable, feels Iyengar. As for the customer, she says, it's impossible to manage without water, and "when a load is delayed or when we have to say it can't be delivered when the customer wants it, annoyance is only to be expected". She keeps this in mind when dealing with both the drivers and customers, and it helps her keep her cool. Perhaps this is part of the secret of her success.
There is another angle to it, says Iyengar. Dealing with a woman brings out the better side of the drivers' nature, she feels. They understand instinctively that it is a difficult task that the woman is handling, and they admire her for attempting it. Therefore, they keep their tempers under greater control than they would in other circumstances and, for the most part, eschew the bad language that is commonplace to many of them.
This is also one of the reasons why Iyengar prefers to employ women as office staff. Her accountant is a woman, and two girls work shifts to take orders, with Iyengar herself pitching in when required. She finds that women are more reliable and sincere than men in general. And, the greatest advantage is that the drivers and cleaners tend not only to behave better in their presence but are also more receptive and cooperative.
The company owns five water tankers, with two drivers each. In addition, there is a floating population of cleaners, usually two per tanker. But she hasn't had any major trouble in dealing with either clients or workers, Iyengar says. She takes pride in the fact that she's built up a good team. And the drivers, too, say they like working for her.
While Iyengar handles the normal running of the business, there are some occasions when she has to take the help of the male members of her family. A breakdown is one example. It is generally the men who deal with such incidents. But she has had occasion to talk to police officials as part of the job. Drivers of tanker lorries often have run-ins with the police. However, Iyengar has found that police officials too are more receptive when it is a woman who is liaising.
Over the four years of its existence, Vijaya Water Supply has built up a reputation of reliability. Iyengar has put in place a system that monitors the order-supply position. For instance, if supply is delayed, the customer is contacted and informed, and asked whether he or she still requires the load. That is more than most water suppliers do. The management also does its best to ensure that good quality water is supplied.
Iyengar has had no formal training in running a business. She picked up all she knows of discipline and being organized when she was working in a travel company several years ago. Coincidentally, her boss was a woman too. "She taught me all there is to know about punctuality, orderliness and the like," she says. The rest she picked up on the job.
Among the reputed suppliers in Chennai, Iyengar is one of just two women who run a water supply business. She would like to change the general mindset about the business. The fact that it revolves around lorry drivers who, as a community, have earned for themselves a bad reputation, leads people to regard those who run water supply chains with scant respect, she says.
Iyengar has had to handle customers who talk dismissively and arrogantly, assuming they're dealing with unskilled, possibly illiterate people. It is hard for her to swallow such treatment when she is striving to bring professionalism into what is, by any standards, an essential service in this city where rain any heavier than a light drizzle becomes front page news.
All in all, it's a tough job, she concedes. "But then, nothing comes easy. If you have to do it, you do it," she says philosophically. Keep going, Padmini Iyengar!