Porters at railway stations forced to carry own burden of life

Published October 5, 2022
‘Coolies’ wait for passengers at Cantonment Railway Station.—White Star
‘Coolies’ wait for passengers at Cantonment Railway Station.—White Star

KARACHI: The Cantonment Railway Station wears a deserted look. It has been like this for over a month now since the train operations had come to a halt due to the floods. But this week there has been a bit of activity on the platforms with two trains, the Peshawar-bound Rehman Baba Express and Khyber Mail, coming back on track and three more, Karakoram Express, Pak Business Express and Karachi Express, following them from Wednesday.

As the Rehman Baba Express chugs into the station at around 8pm with not too many passengers on Tuesday evening, the porters, or coolies, in vermilion kurta and turbans, some resting on the vacant wooden benches are on attention. There is a smile on their faces as their legs pick up pace along with the arriving train. But most of the passengers coming out carry their luggage themselves.

“I would have asked for a coolie if the train was coming on another platform as then there are the steep stairs to be climbed but I think we can carry our own burden from here to the taxi ourselves,” smiles a passenger with a small family of three when asked why he wouldn’t use the services of the porter.

Outside in the parking lot, there is an elderly woman supervising the unloading of her things from a rickshaw. Three porters watch expectantly. When they approach the woman to offer their services, she waves them away. “We are plenty of people ourselves. We’ll carry our own luggage to the train,” she tells them and they back off.

Some say they survived on charity for more than a month due to suspension of train operations

“There is no fixed rate. We only charge Rs50, 100 or 150 according to the load we are expected to carry. It’s not that much. We are dying to get some work but the people don’t want to give us any work,” said Mukhtiar Shah, who informs Dawn that he has been working at the station for some 40 years now after he came here from his hometown Abbottabad.

When asked how he managed to get by during the 37 days when the trains were not running, Mukhtiar says that he has been living on charity. “Someone would hand me Rs500 someday, someone would give Rs1,000 and I would accept shamelessly because I also have a family back home,” he says.

Niaz Ali, another porter, who hails from Shikarpur, says he arrived in Karachi some five years ago to make an honest living. “But I have been accepting whatever charity I get including ration bags from people during this past month,” he says. “I am even grateful for that because I think it is God’s way of helping me not die of hunger,” he adds.

Mohammed Hassan, sitting with several other porters near the mosque at the station’s entrance, says he had come to Karachi hoping to find work in a factory. “But when I didn’t find any work there due to my own lack of skill, I settled for a coolie’s job. Well, it is not a real job with a regular salary but it is still something even though since the end of August when the last trains departed from here I was beginning to think that maybe I will become a beggar now,” he shares.

“We coolies are not much better off than beggars anyway. We have no home. Some of us sleep on the platforms, and others in the two rooms provided to us by the Railways. There are some 450 of us here at the Cantt Station and only 30 each fit in the two rooms. No labour laws apply to us. We have no benefits, no social security, no EOBI,” he informs.

“Recently some politicians came to help us and gave Rs10,000 each to the coolies. But they handed the money to only the 30 coolies they met in the two quarters. Some of us who had gone back to our cities and villages, as there was nothing to do here anyway, were deprived,” Hassan says.

There are two young porters also sitting in line near the mosque at the entrance. Both have been unwell. They had folded doctor’s prescriptions from the JPMC in their pockets, which they shared with Dawn. Both were suffering from an upset stomach along with fever.

“We can’t digest the food that people bring here and distribute for free. It is so spicy and oily. Why give people who are starving such heavy food? They can also bring us rice and lentils or something far simpler that would be cheaper for them and easier on our empty stomachs, too,” said one of the men.

Published in Dawn, October 5th, 2022

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