For decades the word ‘coolie’ has been used for the men in red at railway stations across India, making a dash for every train halting at a platform to carry the baggage of travellers.
Most Indians probably think little of using the word to hail the porters that are an intrinsic part of rail travel in the country but in some parts of the world, ‘coolie’ is a pejorative that has its roots in the empire built by the British.
Railways minister Suresh Prabhu’s announcement during the railway budget on Thursday about consigning the word to the dustbins of history--the porters will now be known as ‘sahayaks’ (helpers)--has a lot to do with the shameful legacy of indentured labour from countries such as India and China who facilitated the rise of the British Empire.
The coolies were usually unskilled labourers who were taken by Western merchants to South East Asia, the Americas, the Caribbean and parts of Africa to work on plantations and construction sites in British colonies.
According to historical accounts, many of these illiterate men and women were hoodwinked or kidnapped by the merchants, who stepped in after the movement to abolish slavery from Africa created a worldwide labour shortage in the late 1840s.
In most places, the coolies were treated with abject contempt. Many died of diseases such as cholera during the sea voyage to places like British Guiana, others were repeatedly flogged and barred from returning home even after they had completed their contracts and women were often sexually exploited by their supervisors.
In South Africa, the word coolie became a catch-all reference to Asians, including Indians. In the US, it is a derogatory term used for lowly paid immigrant workers that has its origins in the Chinese workers who built the transcontinental railroad.
Author Gaiutra Bahadur--who traced the life of her great-grandmother, a young woman who sailed from India to Guiana as an indentured labourer in 1903, in the book “Coolie Woman”--has described the word as a “highly charged slur”.
In India’s popular culture, the coolie - as portrayed by Bollywood stars such as Amitabh Bachchan - was usually a guy with a heart of gold who triumphed over all odds through hard work and honesty. The reality usually has been that this is a marginalised group of workers who struggled to make ends meet by earning a few hundred rupees a day.
The railways minister has hinted at other changes for the porters--they will get new uniforms and be trained in soft skills. Hopefully, the changes will go beyond the cosmetic to make a real change.