The clock strikes 1pm, the time of arrival of Shan-e-Punjab Express from New Delhi to Jalandhar, but only two or three coolies are present at the railway station. Coolies have to now contend with the fact that it is rarely useful to stand and wait for passengers as they have stopped handing over their luggage to carry.
Once a pride of passengers and railway stations, coolies or porters are disappearing with the changing times. As urban sophistication and family planning have reduced the number of members in families, luggage is decreasing and the trend of travelling light is becoming popular. As a consequence, the changing society is not feeling the need for coolies anymore.
The Jalandhar city railway station which had around 160 coolies a few years ago now has only 29 coolies, out of which only a few come to the railway station for seeking work.
“In the past, even a whole lot of coolies were not sufficient for the passengers of the trains like Shan-e-Punjab and Shatabdi Express but now even 4-5 coolies are unable to find luggage to carry,” lamented a coolie.
With the passage of time, families are shrinking, with some having only one child in tow, and luggage is shrinking even faster. The custom of staying or spending holidays with relatives has become rare as families visit each other only on very special occasions and ordinary commuters do not have much luggage to carry. One can find a family with ‘bistar-band’ and a lot of luggage only in old photographs.
The famous film “Coolie”, directed by Manmohan Desai in the 1980s, depicting the lives and relevance of coolies is still alive in the memory of the people. Perhaps the writer of the song “Saari duniya ka bojh hum uthate hain”, dedicated to coolies to glorify their work, could not fathom how the modern day speed of development will remove coolies from railway stations.
As every development has it side effects, the introduction of carry bags, trolley bags, elevators and escalators has snatched the source of livelihood from the coolies.
Sources at the railway station said no one comes to get himself enrolled as a coolie as even the registered coolies are not earning sufficiently. They do not get any salary or compensation from the railways department but are provided only two shirts in a year and a badge bearing the registration number.
“Why would anyone like to become a coolie now? The railways department does not even consider us their employees. Sometime back, a coolie died after a train hit him, we asked the officials to help the family of the deceased, but we were given a terse reply that we are not their employees. This is how they treat us,” said a coolie.
RK Behel, station superintendent, said the railway station has 29 coolies at present, but now they do not get much work as they used to.
Dalel, president of the Coolie Union said, “Work has almost shut down. Announcements are made on the public address system regarding arrival and departure of trains along with platform numbers but the passengers do not ask us to carry their luggage or information about the trains. We just pin hopes on trains like Shan-e-Punjab Express and Shatabdi Express, when we get to carry some luggage but that too only once in a day.”