Mohammad Irshad has been workng as a porter at Karachi Cantt Station for the last 30 years, carrying the weight of the world on shoulders that were once broad and strong but are now bent with the load of poverty and misery.
Due to the closure of a number of trains, coupled with long delays in arrival, in the past year or so, porters/coolies have come under tremendous financial strain and are struggling to survive due to a sharp decline in their daily earnings. They have lost hope for any improvement in their livelihood unless the suspended trains come back on track.
A few years back porters used to earn Rs500-600 per day and considered it good. “Our life has become more miserable and challenging during the past four and a half years and it is becoming difficult to cope with rising cost of living and high food prices,” says Irsahd.
This year five special trains were cancelled during the Eidul Azha period due to a sharp decline in advanced booking by the passengers. A porter recalled that when Shaikh Rashid was the railway minister fares would be reduced by 50 per cent on such occasions.
Suspension of air-conditioned bogeys in many trains have “added salt to our wounds as upper middle or rich people used to tip us beyond our expectations for carrying their luggage,” says Habib Ullah, a porter at the Cantt Station.
Samundar Khan, a porters’ contractor, says that “porters now hardly earn Rs200-250 per day since passengers have switched to buses due to delays and reduced number of trains”. He says that only 200-250 coolies are now working at the Cantt Station as against the management's order of 500 coolies, while the rest work in construction business lifting building material.
“We do not get any salary or other benefits but our income has been fixed at Rs30 per trip with no limit of load,” he says. The fixed rate of Rs30 is also visible on every porter’s uniform.
A number of porters candidly say that the government is deliberately destroying the most sought after mode of inter-city transport in the country to encourage bus operators, while in other countries 60-70 per cent people travel in trains.
“Nowhere in the world will you find a well-organised inter-city bus stand outside the main railway station,” he says, adding that transporters are doing thriving business owing to late arrival of trains and closure of various routes.
According to Irshad, “we have never experienced such a terrible situation in our life. Our job sometimes seems to be in jeopardy as there seem no signs of improvement in the railway service”.
Porters are not the only ones facing hardships. Other low category staff also feel that their jobs are at stake. A guard, who wants to remain anonymous, says that currently all the workers are worried about their job security in view of the deteriorating condition of the railway. So far, there has been no delay in salary but nobody knows what will happen in the future as no steps are being taken to resume the suspended routes or inject new life to the railway system.