We dump our lavish luggage at them at prices hardly equitable to their strenuous labour. We ask them the location of coaches. As we frantically pick up magazines and newspapers for the journey, we confirm with them the platform number and arrival time of late trains. We sometimes haggle with them. We pay them, and that's the last we see of them until the next time. But who is a coolie? And how did he become the bearer of our loads?

I put some of these questions to Nihal Singh, License Porter Inspector, New Delhi Railway Station (NDRS); he explains the recruitment process. There are 2 ways that coolies are recruited, the first of which comprises a regular vacancy announcement. The Office of the Divisional Railway Manager (DRM), responsible for all coolies in Delhi, announces vacancies in different newspapers according to the number of coolies required. This method, however, is rarely followed because very few fresh coolies are recruited. This is done only in instances such as the development of a new railway station. The more common method seems both ad-hoc and organized at the same time, like a number of things with the Railways.

"The recruitment of coolies in India basically runs on the system of ‘badge transfer’", says Singh. According to a Railway Board Policy, coolies who consider themselves no longer fit to work can surrender their badges by transferring it to a relation of their nomination (son, brother, nephew or brother-in-law). After submitting an affidavit from the Judicial Magistrate regarding the nominee, the coolie is sent for a medical check-up to certify his inability to perform his duties. Once the coolie is declared unfit, the nominee’s background is verified by the police and is further confirmed by a Railway Inspector. The Station Manager finally interviews the candidate (including a physical test of picking up a load of at least 40 kg). The ‘unfit’ coolie now becomes the new coolie’s dependant. According to Singh, roughly 80% of the coolies belong to Rajasthan. "Migrants from rural areas of Rajasthan arrived quite early in Delhi and grabbed the badges, which have been rotating within their families since then," offers Singh. The NDRS alone has 1478 ‘licensed porters’.

According to Singh, “the present official rate for coolies’ services is Rs.9 for a load of 40 kg over a period of 20 min. These norms are supposed to be revised every 2 years. These rates are regularly announced during station announcements and are also posted at waiting areas and other passenger hubs.” (You are not alone in struggling to recall the last time you read or heard such an announcement). Should the coolies demand more than the prescribed rates, the passengers are free to lodge a complaint. The coolies in turn get a free second class railway pass for self and 3 sets of uniform annually. They also get free medical treatment at Out Patient Departments (OPD) of Railway dispensaries. In a dark, dingy hall outside the station premises called the ‘Coolie Shelter’, the coolies can rest when not many trains are operating.

The story, however, is hardly as neat as it sounds. The revision of rates for coolies’ services is running seven years behind schedule. "Anyway the coolies do not follow official government regulations vis-à-vis the charges for their services. They are quite happy demanding Rs. 20-30 from almost every passenger. This has also resulted in apathy among the authorities. When they have increased their service-charges themselves, where’s the need to revise their regulations?," offers Singh.

We are asked to line up at Ajmeri Gate and Pahar Ganj entrances of the NDRS. We stand in 45°C next to queues of taxis and three-wheelers without any water or shelter facilities. We are treated worse than objects.
But wait a minute, I rebut. Surely the coolies can’t keep waiting for the norms to change. Since the norms did not change in time, they went ahead and started asking for more. Right? Singh doesn't believe so. "No, in that case they would have charged Rs. 50-75. They simply cannot keep to the regulations; this is what my experience says. They are smart guys. They look at your luggage, the train you’re boarding and also accurately assess how much you need their services; and then they overcharge you."

Singh believes that passengers' behaviour is partly to blame for the irregularities in how much coolies charge. "Some passengers start running from platform 1 to catch a train on platform 12 minutes before its departure. They cannot catch the train without the help of coolies. Once they do, they reward the coolies amply out of sheer happiness. This makes the coolies demand more even from passengers who are not in a position to pay much. Secondly, many passengers complain about being harassed by coolies but nobody is willing to follow up their grievances with a written complaint. They are either in great hurry, or they do not want to leave their contact address at the train station and then be called upon by the Railway staff time and again for inquiries,” offers Singh.

One way to reduce negative experiences is to develop a more organized system, by which expectations are clear among passengers, coolies, and also the Railway officials. The coolies themselves have begun to articulate their concerns in a more organized way; the Akhil Bhartiya Coolie Sangathan came into being 3 years ago. According to Sardar Jaggu Singh, National General Secretary of the body, Ram Vilas Paswan is the only politician in the history of independent India, who has given some thought to the issues concerning coolies. “He introduced the system of free pass, woolen uniform and medical facilities for us. Coolies all over India are grateful to him. He is our God. Successive governments continue to make promises, but unfortunately they always remain mere promises,” offers Singh.

What does the Sangathan do? “Obviously we want greater rights for the coolies. We are fighting on many fronts. We want class-four worker status from the Indian Railway. Besides this, we want our charges to be revised. Also, we should be allowed to work on loading and unloading the Railway parcels, which is done by permanent railway staff. Our demands are not unreasonable. We are a young organization and want to make our voice heard,” maintains Jaggu Singh.

According to R C Patel, President of the Sangathan, Indian Railways treats its coolies like third-rate workers. “We are asked to line up at Ajmeri Gate and Pahar Ganj entrances of the NDRS. We stand in 45°C next to queues of taxis and three-wheelers without any water or shelter facilities. We are treated worse than objects. The NDRS actually needs no more than 500 coolies. But there are 1500 of us hanging around. Is this management?” asks an irate Patel.

Paradoxically, not many coolies are aware of the existence of their Sangathan. Charan, Coolie No. 114 at the NDRS, has been in the business for over 10 years now. He is from Rajasthan and took over his father’s badge. "I think a union is very important. We do not know about our rights and rates and thus cannot demand the correct price. Some kind of formal organisation could solve this problem," says Charan. Amiruddin, also from Rajasthan, is only somewhat better-informed and talks of the links of NDRS coolies with Hind Mazdoor Sabha and the Northern Railway Men’s Union (NRMU). "We seriously need formal unions. There is no formal body to solve our problems and make us and others aware of our rights. Most of us stay in shared accommodation where we live and cook together, which turns out to be cheaper. However, some of us cannot afford even that and sleep either in the dirty coolie shelter or on the platforms, bridges, parking lots etc. Yet, we are always accused of fleecing passengers,” laments Amiruddin.

Manual labour has rarely been regarded as dignified work in the country, and a lot of problems are rooted in this. The general view about coolies and their awareness is a negative one. This is what Imam Khan has to say: “Most people think that we are an illiterate lot with no awareness. Some of us even hold a Masters degree. I have done teacher’s training course in Rajasthan but work as a coolie in order to earn more. We are very much aware of the progress in the world. We know that advances in technology are making manual labour redundant. Even a small advancement like wheels on luggage affects our livelihood.”

"We are very much aware of the progress in the world. We know that advances in technology are making manual labour redundant. Even a small advancement like wheels on luggage affects our livelihood."
But it is unlikely that the coolie system will end anytime soon. Not only does the network provide employment to lakhs of people, it is robustly thriving on passenger demand. Could metal trolleys like the ones we have at airports become a viable alternative at train stations too? Nihal Singh doesn't think so. "They will be stolen. Also, most of the passengers would not like to push their own luggage. They will do that at airports but not here. We have double standards. Civic sense to deal with trolleys will take very long to develop," he says.

While the system continues, the best the coolies - and everyone else too - can hope for is a better managed system, where the Railways takes up the responsibility to protect livelihoods and also assure good services for passengers. Until this credibility gap is bridged, a coolie's work will remain just one more of the many silent struggles for livelihood in India.