Kolkata, (WFS) - It's half past six on a sultry evening. As the train arrives at Kolkata's Sealdah rail terminal station (local trains ply to distant suburbs and districts fringing the metropolis) all nine coaches are ready to burst at the seams.

The 'Ladies' coach - the other eight coaches are 'general' - is abuzz with a hundred voices. As the whistle shrieks above the din, an elderly lady, dressed in widow's white, weaves her way through the crowded coach. "Just for two rupees," she chants. Her right arm ends in a stump just above the wrist, and on that she slings a cotton bag full of badam chaktis (a nutty sweetmeat).

The familiar wrinkled face is not merely one of the growing number of women railway hawkers; it represents a trend as well. Vending goods for a living has been, by and large, a male feature. According to a report of the National Alliance of Street Vendors, India (NASVI), only about five per cent of the stationary hawkers in Calcutta are women.

But regular commuters know that over the past few years, there has been a slow and significant change. A steady trickle of women has made its way to this rather arduous means of livelihood. You may not see them in droves - and they are largely invisible in the 'general' coaches - but they have stormed a male bastion in a manner that cannot be ignored.

Shobharani Banik (75) is one of the pioneers. "I have been on this line for the past 30 years," she says with a toothless grin. "My husband threw me out of the house for another woman." She worked in a textile mill in Shyamnagar, several kilometres outside Calcutta. But then the mill shut down; Banik had an infant son to bring up. Then, someone suggested she try hawking goods, and yet someone else suggested she try her luck at the railway stations.

So Banik began; first it was lozenges, then snacks, and now she sells chanachur (spicy pressed chickpeas). Like for any pioneer, the going wasn't easy. Vending, at the best of times, is a ruthlessly competitive profession - often the last resort for retrenched or laid-off factory workers. Besides, it is a viable option for low-skilled migrants seeking a living in the city.

With factories all over West Bengal reeling under the axe of economic liberalisation, hawkers are generally wary of new entrants. "The men tried to scare me away," recalls Banik. "One of them clutched me by the throat and ordered me to lay off. But I could not afford to be deterred." So she laboured on for three decades, rising with the sun to collect her supply, train hopping all day to sell, and taking a late train to her home in Palta, nine stations from Sealdah.

Binita Sanpui - who insists her real name remain undisclosed - is 30 plus. It's obvious that she isn't very sure of her footing in a rolling, overcrowded train, balancing a huge wooden frame hung with bangles, earrings, mirrors and hairbands. "We had a TV set at home. My husband works in a small factory," she says. "But the pay is so irregular and meagre that we had to sell the TV and several other things. Still, things simply went from bad to worse." Sanpui was too much of a fighter to work as a domestic help. An ex-colleague of her husband had taken up hawking and the idea appealed to her. That was a few years ago. "I don't earn a lot, the work is taxing, but what I do earn helps the household limp along."

Says Dhritarashtra Dutta, himself a rail hawker and member of the CPI(M)-influenced trade union CITU, "Of late, there is a significant rise in the number of women railway hawkers. One major reason is that battered wives, deserted women and hapless widows no longer wish to succumb to destiny. Rather, they are keen to earn a living." And as male factory workers' financial condition is deteriorating by the day, women are compelled to play an active money-earning role for the family. Rising awareness too, is urging women to go beyond existing male frontiers.

"The advantage in hawking," points out Dutta, "is that you don't require any skills, only a little capital (to buy the goods) and you earn ready money." He cites the example of a fellow female hawker who sells chowmein (noodles): "She takes home a pretty decent sum at the end of the day."

Not many women agree that hawking is a lucrative profession. Kajol Das began hawking seven years ago after her husband died. "I've sold five or six packets of snacks on this trip," she says, as she alights from a train in Sodepur. "There's no profit if I can't sell a few dozen packs." She had to pull out her five daughters and one son from school. Meals, medicine and lodging are all she can afford.

But Das is unwilling to give up her trade for a factory job. "Factories close without notice, and you hardly ever get all your dues." On the other hand, the police pick on rail hawkers often, and launch drives to free the trains and platforms from "illegal encroachers".

Rail hawkers have no license or authorisation of any kind, which is why it is difficult to ascertain the exact number of female hawkers on the line. They are 'protected' by whichever trade union they subscribe to. "Trade unions like CITU and INTUC issue cards to rail hawkers for a fee," says Dutta. Ordinarily, these membership cards serve as the sole instrument of authorisation.

But this state of affairs is likely to change. According to official sources, platform hawkers may soon be evicted for good and mobile hawkers asked to buy tickets for boarding the trains. This, despite the landmark Supreme Court ruling in the 1989 Sodhan Singh vs NDMC case where the apex court ruled that every individual had the right to earn a livelihood as a fundamental right. Hawking was thus a fundamental right provided it didn't infringe on the rights of others.

Rail hawkers - particularly women - have little to expect by way of redemption. They have no positive legal sanction to carry on a trade that requires them to slog from daybreak to late at night. Even the city-based Hawker Sangram Committee, that fights for the rights of hawkers, has few railway women in its midst. Add to this the occupational hazard peculiar to women - most of them don't dare to take on the 'general' compartments. The fear of being harassed restricts them to the ladies' compartment, and this prevents them from earning as much as the men.

However, the sheer grit of these women, the very palpable passion for economic self-reliance, is awesome. Even as they struggle, the message they flash across to all women in the world is: there is always an alternative to destitution and oppression - it just needs to be tackled head on.