A barely 2,000 square-feet settlement area, more like a cardboard box, with cluttered lockers being the only piece of furniture. Cornered away from the plethora of food stalls, petty gift and souvenir shops, executive lounges, dormitories of New Delhi Railway Station (NDRS), stands somewhat firm the “Coolie Hall” or the coolie shelter: looking like a dumping site that stands in stark contrast to this “world-class” railway station complex, which was given a grand makeover ahead of the Commonwealth Games in 2010.
The coolie trade which began in the late 1840s as a response to the worldwide movement to end slavery was initially one of “indentured labour” or contractual employment. But this post-slavery labour relation was nothing but a racial commoditisation, as contract labourers from the Far East (especially Chinese and Indians), once shipped to developing European colonies, were made to live in inhuman conditions and often subjected to penal sanctions well beyond the loss of benefits for failure to work. By the late 19th Century, free immigration replaced this contractual trade, coupled with welfare intervention from the government.
India was a slave country when Coolie was written. But glory lay in the ingenuity and poetic vision that Mulk Raj Anand had as he foresaw what colonialism had done to the Indian economy.
British imperialism and with it, the rapid introduction of industrialisation had actually brought more misery to the natives — an oppressive class system in an already feudal caste-ridden society. Needless to say, coolies or free immigration porters, who now form one of the lowest wrungs of the society got enmeshed in an even crueler social stratification that carried both class and caste sentiments. And with it, an impervious government monopoly over their bargaining powers: economic, social and occupational.
“Curled up in knots or face downwards on folded arms or flat on their chests … like death”, as Anand aptly describes the underpaid and overworked lot in his novel. I was reminded of these lines as I visted the NDRS coolie hall, which houses some 1232 “licensed porters”.
Many of them hail mostly from the parched regions of Rajasthan for work and better livelihood. Water resource scarcity, they say, is the biggest drawback back home. They rue over the fact that the country’s policymakers have given up hopes on the drylands, making dryland agriculture one of the biggest drag on the economy.
When not many trains are operating and they have taken a day’s break from the busy humdrum of unloading baggages at prices hardly equitable to their strenuous labour, Prakash Meena, leader of the New Delhi Coolie Union engages with this correspondent over their daily tribulations. “We have not benefitted at all from this Rail Budget,” he says. “We don’t want new uniforms but greater rights for coolies.
“We don’t want new uniforms but greater rights for coolies. We want our rate cards to be revised. We want health insurance for our families, an extension of the time period of our free passes, repair work of our toilets and bathrooms.”
We want our rate cards to be revised. We want health insurance for our families, an extension of the time period of our free passes, repair work of our toilets and bathrooms, installation of coolers in summers, provision of woollen blankets in winters and a television set in our hall so that we can at least watch the Rail Samachar. Some of those basic rights that even a Group-D karamchari
“Indian Railways treats its coolies like third-rate workers,” adds another coolie from Hazrat Nizamuddin Railway Station. There are two ways in which coolies are recruited, he told me as he went on to explain the recruitment process in detail. The Office of the Divisional Railway Manager (DRM) announces vacancies in different newspapers according to the number of coolies required. “But the more common method is basically badge transfer.”
“According to a Railway Board Policy, coolies who think they are no longer fit to work can surrender their badges by nominating and transferring it to one of their family members. This is how even I got into this profession. My father was a coolie too,” says Meena.
According to Meena, the present official rate for coolie services is Rs 60 for a load of 40 kg over a period of 20 minutes — the revision of which has not taken place in the last five years. “We don’t have a salary system. Whatever the passengers pay us, that is our daily wage. On an average, a coolie can earn upto Rs 300 per day. Tips from a few kind passengers are our only perks.”
In unison they acknowledge that it was only during Lalu Prasad Yadav’s tenureship as the Railway Minister that reforms were made. Yadav was the first to have introduced the free second-class railway pass for coolies (applicable only once over two months in a year), three sets of uniforms annually and free medical treatment in railway medical dispensaries. “And now even basic amenities of cleanliness and hygiene are not met in a country where ‘Clean India’ campaigns are the order of the day. Go and take a look at the shabby state of our toilets. Most of the toilet pans are broken, with plaster sticking out of the walls. Not a single karamchari comes here. Looks like our appeals, put forth also on Rail Diwas [20 February] are falling on deaf ears,” says Meena.
Relentless rallies at the capital’s unofficial protest site, Jantar Mantar, and innumerable petitions to the Home and Rail ministries have not been able to alleviate their woes. Not many among their ranks are even aware of the existence of a Coolie Union, such is their deplorable state. And for the likes of me whose bread and butter depends on an honest investigation inside such hell holes, the experience is nothing short of a Chaplinesque moment — that scene from Modern Times where Charlie slides into the machine’s gears.
The introduction of escalators, moving trolleys and state-of-the art technology in NDRS have put the “human engines” on the backtrack by being a major dampener on their livelihood. So it only comes as a rude shock that the political demagogues of the country today are celebrating the doing away of the colonial moniker “coolie” by replacing it with “sahayak” and priding themselves over their aim towards a cultural assimilation in their frivolous announcement of soft-skills training for such “sahayaks”. Servitude has always been part of these porters’ day-to-day living. Hence, pseudo-social empathy is the last thing that the men in red uniforms deserve in their silent struggle.