The 1983 Bollywood blockbuster “Coolie,” featuring Amitabh Bachchan in the titular role, revolves around a hardworking coolie identified by the distinctive label “786”. The film follows his quest to find his mother while highlighting the toils and struggles of a coolie’s life.
It struck a chord with audiences by tapping into the universal experience of encountering coolies, who are often dressed in a red shirt and khaki brown pants, with a conspicuous “coolie number” badge on their arm. This attire serves as a clear indicator of their official status as licensed porters hired by the Indian Railways to aid passengers, a sight familiar to anyone who has ever availed their services at railway stations. However, the significance of these station helpers has dwindled due to modern improvements like escalators, lifts, battery-operated vehicles, and traveler-friendly trolley bags in this evolving time at stations. A coolie’s identity was iconic of railway stations.
Consequently, the earnings of these coolies have dropped significantly as fewer people seek their services for carrying luggage. Instead, they have transitioned into more of a guiding role, providing information about platforms, train locations, and available facilities, a common grievance raised by porters of Mumbai.
Rajaram Shivram Sangle, aged 53, bearing coolie badge number 223 at Mumbai Central station who hails from Aurangabad district, followed in his father’s footsteps to become a coolie. Over his 30 years of service, he highlighted how his daily earnings have shrunk to a meagre Rs 400-500 due to improvements in passenger amenities across stations. He and his colleagues fear losing their jobs due to it. Rajaram used to earn around a thousand rupees earlier, but the demand for their services has declined. Rajaram, like many colleagues, sees his inclusion in Group D railway jobs as a ray of hope. Group D jobs consist of sweepers, cleaning staff, etc.
Porters firmly anticipate that their traditional job as coolies might cease to exist due to technological advancements.In 2008 when Lalu Prasad Yadav was Railway Minister, a Government Resolution was issued that porters will be brought under group D. Many of them were hired under this. Now the remaining porters want that they all should be accommodated into this category.
Harmeet Singh, the deputy station superintendent (Commercial) overseeing Churchgate and Mumbai Central stations, mentioned ongoing station upgrades. He highlighted substantial improvements under the Amrit Bharat initiative, noting specific changes. At Churchgate station, porters previously aided in transporting fish crates. However, during the Covid-19 period of train service shutdowns, fishermen adapted by acquiring their own vehicles like tempos. This shift reflected an upgraded lifestyle trend rather than solely relying on porter services.
With a view of bringing stations on par with airport standards, Singh emphasised on the Indian Railways’ introduction of luxury trains like Vande Bharat. Additionally, acknowledging human limitations, Singh pointed out that due to aging, porters might not lift the same weights as effortlessly as they used to.
In the Western Railway’s Mumbai division for suburban railways, from Churchgate to Dahanu, around 600 porters are actively employed. Anil Nagre, president of the luggage carrier association, stationed at Dadar terminus for 18 years, highlighted the plea for all porters to be accommodated into Group D. He also shed light on the additional responsibilities they handled, including attending to accidents and fatalities on tracks. Additionally, he emphasised the intention to organise a nationwide strike across railway stations in 2024, before the budget, as a strategy to draw the administration’s attention to their unresolved demands.
In Mumbai, apart from the traditional job of lifting luggage, the porters are also asked to attend to dead bodies or cases of injuries on tracks. The Mumbai suburban train section sees heavy crowds during peak hours and on several occasions, accidents occur due to commuters falling off crowded trains, suicide attempts, etc.
Nagre said, that though they are paid Rs 800 for doing this job, which was recently increased from Rs 400, an entire man-day is lost. This is because the porter has to take the body to the hospital as well in addition to helping the police. He also expressed though they do the job on humanitarian grounds. Several times porters have been blamed for theft, which spoils their reputation.On the Central Railway from CSMT- Kalyan, there are 519 porters, who are stationed at bigger stations like Terminus, where long distance trains halt.
Vasant Dashrath Ugalmugale, a 56-year-old coolie who has been working at LTT for 34 years, highlighted not just the loss of income but also the challenge in acquiring uniforms that distinguish them as coolies. Tugging at his shirt, he expressed, “Two years ago, these uniforms were supplied. Despite aiding in different duties, even during VIP visits, there’s a lack of attention to our uniform needs. These uniforms, vital for our identification, are not provided in a timely manner, and they quickly get soiled while handling luggage. While they (railways) enhance passenger amenities, why isn’t there consideration for us?”
Porters lamented that despite them being emblematic figures of the Indian Railways, they receive no recognition for their services on retirement unlike other Railways employees.”We don’t get any post retirement benefit. Moreover, there’s a lack of medical facilities for us, despite many of us facing health issues due to the physical demands of our work involving heavy lifting. This discrepancy raises the question: are we asking for too much? We simply seek equal rights similar to other railway employees,” said Ugalmugale.
At LTT station, there are eight escalators and one lift. The station has around 60-70 coolies working in two shifts, comprising a batch of 30 coolies in each shift. LTT witnesses an average footfall of 60,000 passengers, with 26 pairs of long-distance trains operating daily in both directions – excluding special and festive season trains, said Prakash Meena, the LTT Station Manager. He emphasised that there is currently no provision to increase the number of escalators and lifts at the station. He a stressed that they have not received any official complaints from coolies over loss of livelihood. Another important station, Mumbai Central of Western Railways, sees an average daily footfall of 1 lakh passengers. There are 17 long distance trains which run daily in both directions.