It is still dark when Akhtari Begum, 45, leaves her shanty in rural Kalipara Samsan area of Budge Budge in North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal. She wakes up at 3 am every day, freshens up and then walks to the auto stand 15 minutes away carrying a heavy load of 30-40 coconuts. After an auto ride of another 15-20 minutes she reaches Budge Budge Station, from where she catches the first local train to Sealdah, Kolkata, at 4.45 am.
“There are 15 women coconut sellers who travel to Sealdah every morning on this train. We return together on the 10.20 am local train after selling the coconuts at the Kole market in Sealdah. We have to travel daily because Budge Budge has a very small market and we have no buyers for the coconuts here,” says Akhtari.
Most women vendors come into Kolkata on the south-eastern local trains and while there is no formal estimate of their numbers, roughly for every 20 male vendors there would be 2-3 female vendors making their way into the city. Of course, all of them live below the poverty line.
Migration has been a part of Akhtari's life. Born in Muzzafarpur, Bihar, she migrated permanently to West Bengal after marriage to Alam, who works in a jute mill. “I have been travelling every day for the last 15 years. I have four children and extra money was needed to provide for them,” she says.
Life is not easy for the women vendors like Akhtari, who travel from the suburbs and districts to Kolkata daily to sell their wares, which vary from coconuts to vegetables to fruits, flowers, fish and rice. “We carry heavy loads but are not given space in the vendors' compartments. The male vendors muscle their way in and occupy all the space. We are forced to travel in the ladies' compartment,” says Sahida Bibi, 50. “My husband is blind and unable to work. I contribute the major share to the family income, which averages around Rs 5,000 per month. Of this, around Rs 3,000 goes in the treatment of my husband,” she adds.
Harassment and abuse are major problems faced by the women vendors. “Traveling in the ladies compartment in the early hours is a nightmare. Drunks sleep on the seat and refuse to budge. They vomit and even defecate in the compartment. They pass lewd remarks and often etch obscene graffiti on the walls. The RPF personnel turn a deaf ear to our pleas for help or demand money to act,” says Saira Bibi, 40, a flower vendor, who travels daily by Midnapore local to Howrah station.
Most of the produce these women sell is acquired through moneylenders who advance them cash and then charge a heavy interest. “I earn about Rs 1,400 per week but my loan from the moneylender is Rs 2,300. I keep Rs 700 and give Rs 700 to the money lender every week while the Rs 2300 loan remains intact. It will remain till I die,” bemoans Mahiruh Bibi, 49, who is a vegetable vendor from Pokepali in North 24 Parganas. This mother of seven has a husband who is paralysed.
Many of the women have been physically assaulted several times. “We are very poor. Earlier, at times we travelled without ticket and the railway staff and police used to beat us and throw us out.
But now we have managed to acquire the ‘Izzat' cards issued for BPL passengers for Rs 25 per month. At least, the harassment from railway staff has reduced,” says Usha Pramanik, 42, a fish vendor from Gordor in Diamond Harbour.
Then there is also political harassment under a system called ‘tola neva', or fixing vending spots in the markets near the station. Local goons, owing allegiance to different political parties, give out spots to the vendors in the train itself after collecting money as ‘hafta' (weekly protection money). “It's either ‘pay the demanded rate or lose your spot'. Women vendors are bullied more as they are unable to fight back. If they refuse to pay the rate, the space is allotted to another and they are threatened with physical harm. The market traders' associations are supposed to issue passes to the vendors but it's never done and that is why we have no fixed place and have to pay the weekly charge to the goons,” rues Saira Bibi.
Despite the severe odds, the women vendors continue to work because there is no choice. (Women's Feature Service)
Women vendors travel from the districts to Kolkata every day to eke out a BPL living