26 Feb 2016 19:18 IST

The life of a coolie, err, Sahayak…

In a rare instance, the Railway Budget has acknowledged a force that makes for the bottom of the pyramid

Suresh Prabhu has made a start by acknowledging this neglected lot. But he should do more

“Aye, coolie!” The next time you call out a railway porter like that, be ready to be reprimanded. He is no longer a coolie, but a ‘Sahayak’. This is one of the measures that Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu has taken for the porters — a rare instance in which the Railway Budget has acknowledged a force that makes for the bottom of the pyramid.

There are a few more mentions of these men in red, so ubiquitous in India’s 7,000 railway stations. Prabhu has laid provisions to change the porters’ uniforms, which will also function as real estate for possible advertisements. Perhaps, we can expect some imaginative marketing campaigns from say, Fevicol?

That’s not all. The next time you meet a porter, and mentally prepare yourself to haggle over rates, he might surprise you with a ‘Good Morning’. Prabhu’s men in the Rail Bhawan are going to instil soft skills in the men who carry luggage. And in a step to make their families financially secure, the minister has revealed plans to give the porters group insurance.

Porters not impressed

But the porters are not impressed. Several newspapers and websites visited stations across the country to get the Sahayaks’ response to the Budget. “What’s in a name?” asks one of them. Even though the name has a colonial legacy and not-a-very-pleasant association with slavery, the present owners of the term have bigger problems at hand.

There are at least 20,000 railway porters in the country and Indian Railways has an elaborate system to recruit them (from ads in papers about vacancy to physical tests). Just like in any other job hunts, a bit of recommendation is needed here to land that prestigious license that porters wear around their arm. Remember Amitabh Bachchan in Coolie?

The ‘benefits’

But despite their numbers and celluloid glamorisation, porters are not on the payrolls of Indian Railways. While the men have to pay a deposit of ₹10 and an annual fee for their license, they don’t draw salaries. The Railways merely reviews the rate card for carrying the luggage. At present, porters are entitled to get ₹60 for every 40 kg of load they carry.

They have a few more amenities, including travel concessions and access to Railway hospital (if there is one locally). The biggest draw of the professions is that the retiring porters can handover their license to their chosen one — son, nephew, son-in-law or brother-in-law. This one feature makes the license a premium commodity in the market, commanding at least ₹2 lakh in case the porter decides to sell it.

But that’s it. The men (and now, women, after a ruling allowed the license to be inherited by a daughter or wife) have to fend for themselves. For years, through their unions, porters have been demanding their inclusion under Group D of Railways’ pay roll, which would bracket them with the safai karamcharis (cleaners), and entitle them to benefits such as pensions.

Economic development has not necessarily benefited them. They hate trolleys (passengers prefer to carry these themselves) and elevators. And as for soft skills, one of the porters told a paper, “It is not us, but the customers who need soft skills. Most of them are very rude.”

So the next time I go to a railway station, I will give a bit more thought to the porters (apart from seeking them out to know which platform the train will arrive). You should too.

The Railway Minister has made a good start. Next time, he should go a step further to make the men who carry other’s load, more financially secure.