Lucknow: Saari Duniya Ka Bhojh Hum Uthate Hain (We lift the weight of the world) goes a song in a film titled "Coolie." The film, starring Amitabh Bachchan, portrays a heroic image of a coolie, with Iqbal (Bachchan) playing the eponymous role. However, the real experiences of coolies differ significantly from their portrayal in Bollywood movies. The mechanisation of railways, like the introduction of elevators and escalators, may have unburdened passengers from the need to heft luggage, but it has adversely affected coolies.
On Wednesday, coolies at Charbagh railway station, one of the busiest railway stations in India, went on strike, complaining about the misuse of battery-operated cars meant for old, sick, and differently-abled citizens. Instead, these cars were being used at the station for hauling luggage. Fatah Mohamaad, a leader associated with the coolies' union, said, "The battery-operated vehicles are meant for the elderly and differently-abled people, with a maximum luggage allowance of 7 kg when introduced in 2018. However, this rule was being violated, leading to the starvation of coolies as they were losing business. We spoke to the authorities yesterday, and they have assured us that our issues will be resolved."
Ram Suresh Yadav, the president of the coolies' union at Charbagh Railway Station, said, "Luggage is not mentioned in the policy of the Railway Board. We have reached an agreement with the station authorities that only handbags weighing not more than 7 kgs will be allowed, displayed on the board at the top of the vehicles. Furthermore, he mentioned that vehicles should be hired from the parking lot, but they engage in irregularities by randomly picking up passengers. In one incident, a few days ago, a car ran over a passenger and, on another occasion, skidded from the platform to the railway line."
Two battery-operated cars were introduced in 2018 at the Charbagh Railway station in Lucknow. They were open to everyone, but preference was given to people suffering from temporary or permanent physical restraints, such as the elderly, medically sick, pregnant ladies, and differently-abled individuals.
Recently, on September 21st, Congress Leader Rahul Gandhi visited the coolies at Anand Vihar Railway station, spending time with them and hearing their grievances. Gandhi, who went to the extent of putting on the trademark uniform of the porters and lifting luggage, observed, "Coolies are among the most hardworking people in India. From generation to generation, they spend their lives helping millions of travellers on their journey. That badge on the arm of many people is not just an identity; it is also a legacy they have received. There is a share of responsibility for them, but there is very little progress for themselves."
Gandhi's observation might have been genuine but lacked a solution to the problems associated with their work, intrinsic to any profession involving manual labour. The most significant concern is the potential for job displacement. As machines take over certain tasks, the demand for manual labour may decrease, impacting the livelihoods of porters.
Notwithstanding the concerns of coolies, the increasing mechanisation of railways is a reality and is here to stay, as the pros outweigh the cons. A former Railways Minister had foreseen this situation and introduced a policy in 2008, under which licensed porters were to be absorbed by the railways as gangmen. However, after absorbing thousands of porters aged 18-50, it was not continued by successive Railway Ministers.
Ram Suresh Yadav said, "When this absorption was done in 2008, the mechanisation of railways was at a very nascent stage. Now it has reached a very advanced stage, and because of this trend, the work of coolies has almost finished. We have demanded our absorption anywhere in the railways. When we meet the railway minister, he assures us that our demands are under process, but we don't see anything in the budget reflecting our demand."
Pointing to rampant privatisation, he said, "Privatisation has increased commercialisation, and the number of Air-Conditioned Coaches is rising. Nowadays, most coaches are air-conditioned, and the General and Sleeper coaches have considerably reduced. In a country where 80% of people are poor enough to be dependent on PM Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana for survival, having 80% of coaches as AC - isn't this a contradiction?" Railways, which once held the record for the largest employer in the world, hires porters through an advertisement. Porters have to clear medical and physical tests to procure a license. The rates for coolies are fixed by the railways but vary according to the region. Governments will have to work out a policy where technological advancement has symbiotic benefits for everyone.