In the heat of the afternoon, several men wearing red shirts with towels thrown over their shoulders, to wipe the sweat off their face, can be seen standing near the entrance of the Krantivira Sangolli Rayanna (KSR) railway station in Bengaluru. These are railway porters who earn their livelihood by transporting the luggage of passengers to and from the trains.
Every time a car or auto enters the station premises, the porters approach it in the hope that they get a customer. Some people try and negotiate to beat down the price and others decide to carry their own luggage. The porters, who donât get a customer, go back to their spot and wait for the next vehicle to pull up.
As such, porters earn little, but the pandemic has devastated their business and they have been left to struggle. According to the porters TNM spoke to, there are nearly 350 of them working at the KSR railway station and their business has taken a hit since the pandemic began, more so after the lockdown was imposed in Karnataka following the second wave of COVID-19.
âBefore this second lockdown, we could earn about Rs 500-600 a day but now the situation is such that some days we donât even earn enough to pay for our bus ticket home. Today (June 4), because there was a special train going to north India, some of us could make about Rs 300,â said Ravi, a porter at KSR railway station. He also added that due to the lockdown, most of the trains are running empty.
The other issue that porters have had to face since the pandemic started is that people donât want to give them their luggage to carry. âMany passengers are scared to give us their bags fearing theyâll get the coronavirus, as we carry many peopleâs luggage. They are looking out for their safety so we canât really blame them,â Ravi said.
With little to no work coming their way, many of the porters have had to borrow money to make ends meet. Ravi has taken a loan from his friends and repays them on days when he gets business at the railway station. âI'm 45 years old and I donât know any other work, so I canât go and earn somewhere else. We somehow have to get through this life and so we come each day in the hope of making a decent amount of money,â said Ravi.
Struggle to pay school fees
A father of two, one studying second PU and the other one in class 6, Ravi is worried about how he will pay his childrenâs school fees. âPaying their fees has become a huge burden these days. They (schools) threaten us that if we fail to pay the fee, they will not give our children their passing certificate,â he said.
Another porter named Anand standing nearby added, âMy son is studying in class 6 and my daughter in class 4. Combined, their fee amounts to Rs 50,000 a year.â When he wasnât able to pay the amount that the school had asked for, he alleged that the school blocked his children from online classes for a month. Even for them to sit for their exam and get promoted to the next class, he has to pay 70% of the fee, which he is unable to do. âI havenât been able to pay the fee. So, they canât write the exams and wonât be promoted. We try to send our kids to private schools, hoping they wonât end up having to do jobs like ours,â said Anand.
He shared the experiences of the porters around him. Pointing to an older porter nearby, he said, âAll of us are in deep trouble, some are old and their kids have refused to take care of them, most of us have families to feed.â
âGroup D workersâ status
While the pandemic has brought customers to a near halt, things had been going south for a while for these porters. âOur business started taking a hit when these new luggage bags with wheels came in,â said Anand, pointing to a man with a big bag. âLook at that bag, it is nearly as big as that man but because of the wheels even a small kid can move it. The other big hit came when the railways installed escalators and battery cars,â he added
When asked what they feel would help them, Anand said, âFor the government, we donât even exist. Every time, we look at the Railway Budget with the hope of seeing some benefit, but nothing is mentioned about us. Moreover, we donât want any relief packages or alms as that will be used to justify that they are doing something for us.â
He said that he and the other porters want the railways to provide them with a decent life and include them as Group D workers (the bottom tier of government jobs that include peons, sweepers, etc). âWe donât mind doing any work. Let them ask us to sweep, we will. At least if we are taken in as workers, we would have some security and a steady wage. We have demanded the government to do this so many times but nothing has come of it,â said Anand.
âRight now, there are some days we earn and other days we go home empty-handed. We want the government to appoint us as employees of railways and give us a proper wage like it was done when Lalu Prasad was the Union Railway Minister,â added Anand. In 2008, when Lalu Prasad Yadav was Union Railway Minister, porters were classified as 4th-grade staff of the railways.
The porters said that they have met Railway Ministers of successive governments since 2008, in the hopes of getting employment as Group D workers. But nothing has come of it.
âBefore the pandemic started we had been to Delhi to request the Railway Minister to take us in as Group D employees as year after year our earnings have been going down for many reasons,â said Uday Kumar, the president of South Western Railways (SWR) Luggage Sahayak.
âIt is really hard to make a living as a porter and there is no job security either. If we are taken in as employees, that will be a big relief. However, the government has not considered our request at all,â he added.
TNM contacted the SWR to know if any benefits were being provided to the porters. Aneesh Hegde, Public Relation Officer for SWR, said, âIn the first wave, we had provided rations to the porters as there was absolutely no train service. But this time, there is train movement, so no such measure has been taken. But, we have made arrangements to vaccinate them.â
When asked about benefits to counter the reduced business porters face, he added, âAs of now, no such measures have been taken as the trains are running but in case the lockdown continues, all possible assistance will be given.â