Alert Sign Dear reader, online ads enable us to deliver the journalism you value. Please support us by taking a moment to turn off Adblock on Dawn.com.

Alert Sign Dear reader, please upgrade to the latest version of IE to have a better reading experience

.

Email

Indian cart pullers: Breaking backs for Rs 50

Updated Apr 10, 2015 11:44am
A cart puller hangs his legs covered with dirt and flour as he rests on his loaded cart in New Delhi, India.  Sometimes, cart pullers can pull their carts for as many as 25 kilometers (15 miles) a day.— AP
A cart puller hangs his legs covered with dirt and flour as he rests on his loaded cart in New Delhi, India. Sometimes, cart pullers can pull their carts for as many as 25 kilometers (15 miles) a day.— AP

At the end of their workdays, after they have pulled their wooden carts for hours through the narrow lanes of New Delhi’s spice market, the exhausted men stop at little sidewalk stalls for something to eat, often a few handfuls of rice with some gravy on top.

Then, many of them maneuver their carts into some quiet piece of pavement. It might be along an empty stretch of road, or in front of a shop closed for the night. That is where they sleep, spreading out their thin blankets on the carts they have pushed all day.

The next morning the cycle begins again, as it has for centuries.

The market is called Khari Baoli. An institution since the 17th century, Khari Baoli claims to be the largest outdoor wholesale spice market in Asia, with thousands of shops operating in the maze of roads so small and crowded that trucks cannot get in during the day.

But, these men will tell you, the trucks don’t need to get in. They are the “thela wallahs,” the thousands of cart men who push and pull and steer thousands of tons of spices and other dried food every day through the market. They take it from trucks to warehouses, from warehouses to stores, and from one store to another.

The lowliest — the two or three assistants who help each cart man — earn as little as Rs 50 for a long day of work. Those who manage to buy their own carts can make more than 10 times that much.

Sacks are arranged on a wire across a pavement to provide privacy as cart pullers sleep at night in New Delhi, India.  — AP
Sacks are arranged on a wire across a pavement to provide privacy as cart pullers sleep at night in New Delhi, India. — AP

A heavy load can weigh more than 300 kilograms, with boxes and sacks sometimes piled high overhead with spices, herbs, nuts, rice and tea. Pay for each load depends on the weight and the distance.

Most of the men are freelancers, working for whoever will pay for their next load, though the largest of the trading houses keep thela wallahs on the payroll. Many of the thela wallahs sleep in front of warehouses, hoping to pick up additional work when trucks arrive during the night.

Most of the men come from the poorest of India’s hinterlands, villages where even Rs 50 a day can look like good money.

Sometimes, the days can seem to last forever, with some pulling their carts for as many as 25 kilometers. Maybe farther. By evening, many are desperate for a shot or two of cheap liquor to ease their aches.

But they are back at it again the next morning, working until they've saved enough to head home for a few months to see their families. And when the money runs out, they come back again to Khari Baoli.

A cart puller smokes a beedi, tobacco rolled in an indigenously available leaf, as he waits for traffic to clear in New Delhi, India. Cart pullers who own their carts make $4-10 a day.— AP
A cart puller smokes a beedi, tobacco rolled in an indigenously available leaf, as he waits for traffic to clear in New Delhi, India. Cart pullers who own their carts make $4-10 a day.— AP
A cart puller displays his calloused hands from handling heavy goods, in New Delhi, India. A heavy load can weigh more than 650 pounds (300 kilograms), with boxes and sacks sometimes piled high overhead with spices, herbs, nuts, rice and tea. — AP
A cart puller displays his calloused hands from handling heavy goods, in New Delhi, India. A heavy load can weigh more than 650 pounds (300 kilograms), with boxes and sacks sometimes piled high overhead with spices, herbs, nuts, rice and tea. — AP
A cart puller sits on top of a load of goods and makes a call from his mobile phone to family members back home at the khari baoli spice market in New Delhi, India. Many Cart pullers work until they’ve saved enough to head home for a few months to see their families. And when the money runs out, they come back again to Khari Baoli.— AP
A cart puller sits on top of a load of goods and makes a call from his mobile phone to family members back home at the khari baoli spice market in New Delhi, India. Many Cart pullers work until they’ve saved enough to head home for a few months to see their families. And when the money runs out, they come back again to Khari Baoli.— AP
A cart puller transports a load of goods as he is helped by an assistant at the wholesale spice market in New Delhi, India. Cart pullers steer thousands of tons of spices and other dried food every day throughout the market.— AP
A cart puller transports a load of goods as he is helped by an assistant at the wholesale spice market in New Delhi, India. Cart pullers steer thousands of tons of spices and other dried food every day throughout the market.— AP
Assistants push a cart in New Delhi, India. Assistants can make as low as seventy cents a day. — AP
Assistants push a cart in New Delhi, India. Assistants can make as low as seventy cents a day. — AP
A cart puller looks out after pulling carts throughout the day at khari Baoli spice market in New Delhi, India. The cart pullers take goods from trucks to warehouses, from warehouses to stores, and from one store to another.— AP
A cart puller looks out after pulling carts throughout the day at khari Baoli spice market in New Delhi, India. The cart pullers take goods from trucks to warehouses, from warehouses to stores, and from one store to another.— AP
Two cart pullers talk and smoke marijuana in New Delhi, India. With little time for themselves, the cart pullers relax with liquor and an occasional drag of marijuana. (AP Photo/Saurabh Das) — AP
Two cart pullers talk and smoke marijuana in New Delhi, India. With little time for themselves, the cart pullers relax with liquor and an occasional drag of marijuana. (AP Photo/Saurabh Das) — AP
A cart puller sleeps at Khari Baoli, a wholesale spice market, in New Delhi, India. Of the thousands of migrant workers from across India that come to Delhi in search of jobs, many end up pulling or assisting the carts that are widely used to transport goods at Khari Baoli.— AP
A cart puller sleeps at Khari Baoli, a wholesale spice market, in New Delhi, India. Of the thousands of migrant workers from across India that come to Delhi in search of jobs, many end up pulling or assisting the carts that are widely used to transport goods at Khari Baoli.— AP
A drunk man offers his shoes to his colleague who passed out after consuming alcohol in New Delhi, India.— AP
A drunk man offers his shoes to his colleague who passed out after consuming alcohol in New Delhi, India.— AP
A cart puller sits on top of a load of goods and makes a call from his mobile phone to family members back home at the khari baoli spice market in New Delhi, India. Many Cart pullers work until they’ve saved enough to head home for a few months to see their families. And when the money runs out, they come back again to Khari Baoli.— AP
A cart puller sits on top of a load of goods and makes a call from his mobile phone to family members back home at the khari baoli spice market in New Delhi, India. Many Cart pullers work until they’ve saved enough to head home for a few months to see their families. And when the money runs out, they come back again to Khari Baoli.— AP
Cart pullers and helpers rest idle on carts after shop owners called for a sudden strike after a theft at the spice market in New Delhi, India. The amount a cart puller earns varies on the amount of loads he carries, their weight and his distance driven. (AP Photo/Saurabh Das)— AP
Cart pullers and helpers rest idle on carts after shop owners called for a sudden strike after a theft at the spice market in New Delhi, India. The amount a cart puller earns varies on the amount of loads he carries, their weight and his distance driven. (AP Photo/Saurabh Das)— AP
A cart puller holds a scarf to his face to protect himself from vehicle fume in New Delhi, India.  Cart pullers receive pay for each load depending on the weight and distance. — AP
A cart puller holds a scarf to his face to protect himself from vehicle fume in New Delhi, India. Cart pullers receive pay for each load depending on the weight and distance. — AP
Hundreds of carts line up the main thoroughfare at khari Baoli, in New Delhi, India. The market is claimed to be the largest outdoor wholesale spice market in Asia with thousands of cart pullers operating in the maze of roads so small and crowded that trucks cannot get in during the day. — AP
Hundreds of carts line up the main thoroughfare at khari Baoli, in New Delhi, India. The market is claimed to be the largest outdoor wholesale spice market in Asia with thousands of cart pullers operating in the maze of roads so small and crowded that trucks cannot get in during the day. — AP