Nearly 20 porters, wearing the quintessential red-shirt, a copper-badge on their arms, are engaged in idle banter outside the New Delhi Railway station. Soon, three cars enter the parking area next to where they are sitting, waiting for customers. One of them, Bhagwati Lal , 60, immediately rushes towards the car, and asks the occupants of the car, “Sahab coolie chahiye? (Do you want a coolie’s service)?
Lal does not know that the rail minister rechristened him on Thursday. He is a sahayak now instead of ‘coolie’, a colonial-era racist term.But tell him that and Lal is hardly amused.
“Is that some kind of a promotion for me? Am I going to get higher wages for my work?” asks Lal, a native of Dausa in Rajasthan.
“We are fighting for survival, there is not much work for us. People have upgraded to trolley bags,” he said.
Like Lal, most of his colleagues are not bothered about their new name. What they want instead is recognition as D-category railway employees, medical insurance, a quarter and free railway passes round the year.
Chet Ram, an undergraduate, who has a vocational degree from an Industrial Training Institutes (ITI), said, “ We are happy being called a coolie. All of us here have watched Amitabh Bachchan’s Coolie at least 10 times. People like us would be happy if we are given a job with the railway.”
Former railway minister Lalu Prasad Yadav had given jobs to some porters as Group D staff, who are engaged in works like maintaining tracks, manually changing the lines and other unskilled work.
Ram lives in a rented house in Paharganj, along with three other porters, for which he pays around R1,500 a month. There is no kitchen or bathroom. He uses the area near staircase to cook food and toilets at the railway station.
“Life is tough. There is no job security. We are given passes for only two months which means we can go home only once. If the railway doesn’t pay us salary, at least they can allow us free travel,” Ram said.
About the new uniform that would display advertisements, Bijender Kumar said, “We love our uniform. It makes us feel like Amitabh Bachchan,” he said, referring to the megastar’s blockbuster movie ‘Coolie’.
Kumar said the introduction of trolleys will not help the porters much since the design of the New Delhi station does not support trolleys. “It is better if we carry the load on our head. The escalators don’t work and passengers arrive a few minutes before the departure time. In such case if we use trolleys, it would delay our movement,” said Kumar, who claims to hold a graduate degree.