Fewer than half of licensed personnel work as they claim there is not enough to do; passengers complain
Minutes before the Chennai–Jaipur Express arrives at platform 4 at Chennai Central station, Chinnaiah, an exhausted-looking porter, rushes to the water cooler for a quick drink.
He then frantically signals a young boy at the end of the platform, indicating that he should get a trolley. “Some passengers cannot do without porters,” 59-year-old Chinnaiah says, as he keeps an eye out for prospective clients. “Since I can’t lift heavy bags, I bring my nephew along. He gets me a trolley as soon as I spot a group with a large number of bags.”
Chinnaiah is one of only 150 of the 607 licensed porters who come to work at Central Station every day.
With summer vacations having begun, Central and Egmore stations are packed with families leaving and tourists arriving in the hundreds, but there is a severe shortage of porters.
“Nearly 190 of us were selected for fourth-grade permanent government jobs, after former railway minister Lalu Prasad introduced a test in 2008. There was an assured pay of Rs. 10,000 with these jobs. So the only ones left here are old porters who were not eligible for other jobs and those who are not literate,” said R. Manivanan, another porter.
In the evening and night, the shortage of porters is even worse, as over 70 of the existing porters who come from moffusil areas and work only thrice a week, leave by 7 p.m.
“Last time, we arrived here by Kovai express from Coimbatore at 10 p.m., we did not find a single porter on the platform,” said Ranjani Shastry, a 65-year-old passenger at Central. The porters work in shifts, but as they are not on Southern Railway’s payroll, there is no compulsion for them to work at stations, says an official.
The Rs. 150 Chinnaiah earns for transporting seven bags for a family of five from the platform to the call taxi section, may be his only earnings as a porter for the day.
At noon, Chinnaiah goes to Parry’s, where he offloads containers and earns Rs. 200. “There is a demand for porters only on some days, and only when long distance trains arrive. Most of us leave after morning hours,” he said.
While passengers complain that without porters they are forced to haul bags across the sprawling premises of stations, porters say there is not enough work for them.
“Our biggest problem is that most luggage pieces these days have trolley wheels, and people do not need porters. Of course, there are difficulties in carrying the bags up staircases, but that problem is absent here as there is no overbridge,” said Rajanaicken, another porter at Central.
The only emoluments offered to porters by Southern Railway are an annual complimentary pass for free travel and some medicines for employees at the health unit, he added.
“Also, there are just 10 trolleys at the station. While they lie unused during other months, they are in heavy demand from May to June, and prove inadequate during peak hours,” he added.
To supplement his meagre earnings, Rajanaicken also arranges fares for a couple of taxi drivers.
At Egmore station, only 75 of the licensed 200 porters are still working.
“Though there is slightly more demand here because people find it difficult to carry luggage on the overbridge, long distance trains arrive during only five hours of the day,” said R. Sethu, a porter.
“The problem though is that many passengers promise us a certain price but don’t pay us in full once we deposit their luggage where they want it. These days, cab service drivers offer to carry the passengers’ luggage. Most tourists use such services, he added.
A railway official said the shortage of porters was a rampant problem across major stations in the country. “New Delhi is the worst. The sanctioned strength of porters there is 1,500 but less than 600 work. We are trying to address the issue everywhere,” he said.