Numbered men, innumerable woes

A coolie at the New Delhi Railway Station . Photo: Rajeev Bhatt.

A coolie at the New Delhi Railway Station . Photo: Rajeev Bhatt.  

THEIR LIVES are certainly not as melodramatic and colourful as Bollywood movies would have us believe. The coolies, typical of train stations in India, are an underpaid, over-worked lot. Life is speedy at a train station, and coolies are often the forgotten means to our ends.

The New Delhi Railway Station - NDRS - alone has 1,478 `licensed porters.' According to Nihal Singh, License Porter Inspector, NDRS, there are two ways of recruiting coolies. The first one involves a regular vacancy announcement. This method is followed only in instances such as the development of a new railway station.

"But, the recruitment of coolies in India basically runs on the system of badge transfer," says Singh. According to a Railway Board Policy, coolies who consider themselves not longer fit to work, can surrender their badges by transferring it to a relation of their nomination, be it his son, brother, nephew or brother-in-law.

The present official rate for coolies' services is Rs. 9 for a load of 40 kg over a period of 20 minutes. These norms are supposed to be revised every two years but were last revised seven years ago. The coolies get a free second-class railway pass for self and three sets of uniform annually. They also get free medical treatment at Out Patient Departments of Railway dispensaries. In a dark, dingy hall outside the station premises called the `Coolie Shelter', the coolies can rest when not many trains are operating.

This, however, is the neat, normative side of the story. The revision of rates for coolies' services is running seven years behind schedule.

"Anyway, the coolies do not follow official government regulations vis-�-vis the charges for their services. They are quite happy demanding Rs. 20-30 from almost every passenger. This has also resulted in apathy among the authorities," offers Singh.

Greater organisation among the coolies themselves could be the first step in giving voice to their rights. Akhil Bhartiya Coolie Sangathan came into being three years ago. According to Sardar Jaggu Singh, National General Secretary of the body, Ram Vilas Paswan is the only politician who gave some thought to the issues concerning coolies. "He introduced the system of free pass, woollen uniform and medical facilities for us. Coolies all over India are grateful to him. He is our God," offers Singh.

According to R.C. Patel, President of the body, "Indian Railways treats its coolies like third-rate workers."

"We are asked to line up at Ajmeri Gate and Pahar Ganj entrances of the NDRS. We stand in 45�C next to queues of taxis and three-wheelers without any water or shelter facilities. The NDRS actually needs no more than 500 coolies. But there are 1,500 of us hanging around. Is this management?" asks an irate Patel. Well, a question worth asking.

"Obviously, we want greater rights for the coolies. We want class four-worker status from the Indian Railway. We want our charges to be revised. Also, we should be allowed to work on loading and unloading of the Railway parcels, which is done by permanent railway staff," maintains Jaggu Singh.

Doing away with the system of coolies altogether is hardly a viable alternative. The network provides employment to lakhs and is robustly thriving on passenger demand.

But, unless their employer, the Indian Railways, takes measures to foster credibility between the coolies, passengers and the Railway network, coolies in the stations will remain just one among the many sections of workers whose livelihood is a silent struggle. For, unlike their flamboyant Bollywood counterparts, licensed porters in India can hardly be expected to leap out of their anonymous lives of fractured dignity.

Recommended for you