College of Engineering, Guindy, the University of Madras in the 1940s saw three women, the first of their kind, receiving an engineering degree. One of them was PK Thresia, the first woman Chief Engineer in the Public Works Department in Kerala, a true groundbreaker in a field which continues till date to be heavily male-dominated.
PK Thresia was born on 12 March, 1924, the second oldest child to her parents Kakkappan Paniculam and Kunchalichy. Thresia completed her school education in Thrissur district of Kerala where she was a bright student who performed very well. She carried this quality to higher education.
Her parents were from an agricultural background and were extremely supportive of her education and her dream of having a career in engineering. However, the only engineering college in Kerala did not take women students and she went on to take admission in College of Engineering, Guindy located in Chennai. After her father’s death soon after her graduation, it was her mother who worked hard to support the family with six children.
It was her early life and her family that encouraged her to break through the numerous norms and restrictions that were imposed on women by the patriarchal society. Along with being a highly motivated and hardworking person, it is the support of her father who had faith in his daughter’s future and of a mother who single-handedly raised a family, ensuring her daughters to be empowered and independent which ensured that her future would be a really bright one.
PK Thresia studied at St. Mary’s High School in Kattoor and had ambitions for an engineering degree. While most families did not consider the thought of educating their daughters, her parents were set on ensuring she achieves her goals. Thresia along with Leelamma George joined the civil engineering department of College of Engineering. The college was an all-male institution until the admission of A Lalitha.
A Lalitha, married, widowed and a mother at a young age wanted to take up a professional course after facing a number of hardships. Her father Pappu Subba Rao, part of the Electrical Engineering faculty persuaded the Principal and the Director of Public Instruction of the time to admit her as a student. Her admission paved the way for Thresia and Leelamma to join the institution. In a male-dominated institution, which often pushed women to the margins, these three women occupied the public space and set their path to success. The three path-breakers received their degrees at the same time changing the course of the history of the institution, women’s education and the presence of women in the field of engineering.
The course was cut short by a few months due to World War II and the three graduated together. The engineering college struck off the usual “he” in their degrees to “she”, an action indicative of the magnitude of change brought about by the education of three women in the field of engineering. The institution continues to produce a number of women graduates who are pioneers in their work.
Highlights of Her Work
After receiving her degree in Civil Engineering, PK Thresia joined the Public Works Department in Cochin, then under the British rule. She steadily progressed to acquire higher positions in her career spanning thirty-four years. She joined as a section officer and was soon promoted to Assistant Construction Engineer in Mulakunnathukavu. Her work led her to become an Executive Engineer in 1956 in Ernakulam and after nine years of working for that position, she was promoted further to Superintending Engineer Kozhikode Roads and Buildings. It was in 1971 that she became Chief Engineer of the state of Kerala.
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Becoming the Chief Engineer of Kerala was a massive achievement which made Thresia the first Woman Chief Engineer in India. She was also the first woman in Asia to be the Chief Engineer of a state Public Works Department. She held the position for eight years and worked on a number of important projects. Working in the Roads Building department, during her stint many road projects were completed. Thresia, in fact, experimented with rubberised bitumen roads in Kerala. She served as an active member Specification & Standards Committee of the Indian Road Congress. She commissioned more than thirty bridges to be built every year, as well as quite a few district headquarters.
Perhaps one of the most important works of hers was her contribution to education and healthcare. Under PK Thresia, a number of projects of schools and hospitals were started and completed. A prominent one was the women and children’s hospital associated with Kozhikode Medical College. From the time of early life to her retirement, Thresia was not only an important figure with high qualifications and range of important achievements over the years but a true feminist icon who did not shy away from bringing important changes to the public space and infrastructure.
In her interview, after being appointed India’s first woman chief engineer, PK Thresia stated that while she saw few women in the services when she started working, she has never regretted being a woman. She further said that an engineer’s life is not as difficult as women might think.
She retired in 1979 after working for nearly three and a half decades. She founded the company ‘Taj Engineers’. She was known for her dedication to her work and was highly respected in her field, often called upon for work even after retirement.
Thresia never got married and was close to her family, her mother and her siblings. She spent time with her sisters and their children, some of whom say they looked up to her and her legendary work. She passed away in 1981 due to deteriorating health by a diagnosed brain tumour.
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PK Thresia along with A Lalitha and Leelamma George was a trailblazer who defied societal oppression to establish herself as one of the first women pioneers in the field of engineering. Their struggles and achievements paved the way for a number of other women to join the field and make it more equal and representative.