As the whistle blows to herald the arrival of a train from Lahore, Ghulam Hussain, a coolie at the Rawalpindi railway station, remains unmoved.

The reason is that, unlike in the past only a few passengers arrive here by trains to hire the coolies’ services for carrying their luggage.

“Gone were the days when I made good money by transporting the luggage of passengers from the train to their vehicles. I also used to load the luggage of traders from freight trains to trucks and earned enough money to feed my nine-member family,” said Hussain while talking to Dawn at the railway station.

“As the railway is in crisis due to the decreasing number of passengers so are we (the coolies). The government and the railway management have failed to cater to the needs of the modern days and people are using other modes of transportation now,” he said.

He said freight trains had been stopped and now no businessman was seen at the railway station to load and unload their consignment. Most of the train passengers themselves carry their luggage and do not hire the services of coolies.

Wearing his orange uniform, Hussain is among the 30 porters who are working at the five platforms of the railway station. These coolies are facing financial crisis due to closure of a number of freight and passenger trains.

Besides, faulty engines have resulted in long delays in arrival and departure of trains during the last three years. As a result, passengers are not ready to travel on the trains.

“I have to feed my five daughters and two sons as well as my parents. In 1999, I used to earn Rs400-Rs500 daily but now my average income has dropped to Rs200-250 a day. I have to pay Rs20 per day to the contractor as a fee to work at the railway station,” he added.

Hussain has been working at the railway station for the last 20 years.

During this period, he also saw the golden days of the railways when there was a hustle and bustle at the station from dawn to dusk and even at midnight.

“I don’t know other trades to make money as a coolie’s life starts from the Railway station and ends here. I have never spent more than one week outside the railway station,” he said.

The coolie said he kept himself abreast of latest development about politics and other national issues by interacting with people at the railway station. “I have seen former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s train march from Karachi to Rawalpindi during the 1989 general elections, Junejo’s departure from here, Nawaz Sharif’s train march in 1993 and former PM Zafarullah Khan Jamali’s departure in a train to Quetta in 2004,” Hussain recalled.

Allahdita, another porter, was also worried about the sharp decline in his earnings and said he had been serving here for more than two decades.

He said he used to earn Rs400 to Rs500 daily but nowadays when inflation had gone up his daily income had decreased to Rs200-Rs300. He said he went home after the departure of 12:30 night train to Lahore but sometimes had to wait till 3am when a train arrives from Karachi.

Mohammad Farid, another porter, said train passengers belonged to the middle or lower middle class and mostly they transported their luggage by themselves.

Due to the financial strains, we have to work in bad health. “I am suffering from fever but have to come to the railway station otherwise I will lose my daily wage. Besides, I also have to pay the fee to the contractor.

He said the contractor forced the porters to pay him Rs20 to Rs30 per day. During the tenure of former President Pervez Musharraf, his railway minister Javed Ashraf Qazi imposed the Jugga tax on the coolies.

Pakistan Railways awarded the contract for hiring of coolies for R120,000 per annum in an open bidding. According to the rules, the contractor has to provide 180 porters at the five platforms of the railway station.

Khaliq Hussain, the contractor, said: “Porters now hardly earn Rs200-Rs250 daily since most of the railway passengers have moved to buses due to delays and the closure of trains.” He said only 30-40 porters were now working at the railway station against the management’s order for 280 porters.

On the other hand, the railway officials are hopeful about the economic revival of the organisation. “Good days are returning for the railways as the management has improved the timetable while injecting more locomotives in the system,” said Syed Munawar Shah, the divisional superintendent of the railways, while talking to Dawn.

He said during the last one month four trains on the Lahore-Rawalpindi route had achieved 100 per cent occupancy on Friday, Saturday and Sunday and 70 per cent in other days of the week.

The railway authorities have reduced the fares of trains on the Lahore-Pindi route and as a result there has been an increase in the number of passengers during the last one month.

“In the coming days, when there would be more increase in the number of passengers, the earnings of porters will also improve. The porters are not employees of the railways but they are here to facilitate the passengers,” he said.

The official said the coolies were allocated rooms at the railway station. Doctors at the railway hospital provided medical care to them and their families on humanitarian grounds.

He said the contract money for the coolies had been increased from Rs100,000 per year to Rs120,000 per year. “The contractor is paying the money to the railways after getting it from the porters. If the contractor is paying the money to the railways, it means that he is earning money,” said the official.

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