Coolis
INDIAN RAILWAYS, NEW DELHI RAILWAY STATION, NEW DELHI, INDIA.

Heave-ho-for-a living.

Head held high inspite the heavy baggage, a railway licensed luggage porter known as the ‘coolie’ helps a family transport belongings at the New Delhi railway station for a fee agreed upon after a quick round of ‘on the spot’ bargaining – which may or may not have been the originally quoted price to begin with.

A recurring sight across railway platforms and interstate bus terminals, members of this unskilled work force largely hail from impoverished backgrounds, survive on day to day earnings that fluctuate, sleep on platforms and shelters within stations, or badly made rooms available on the lowest rent to send a large chunk of the earnings back home to families.

A few boast of a year or two of government elementary school but practically none ever make it to authoritative positions with monthly paychecks.

Though ‘coolie’ was once used to described Indian workers working on large plantations overseas as cheap labor after the slave trade was abolished – a system that quickly developed into human trafficking and flourished well into the 19th century before being ended by the British.

The present generation that bear the tainted colonial name, on the contrary, are free men with voter rights, operate in unions that demand regular hike in rates, better facilities and enjoy benefits such as medical coverage, low fare railway passage, and even have their own special commemoration day known as the Cooli Diwas held each year on the 21st of February.

In fact the Indian Railways sees the heavy lifting as a full fledged professional job, and takes to periodically recruiting the manpower. Ones who make it through the lengthy enrollment process, get to work the platforms with golden badges tied over the arm as a visible sign of their license.

Travel Tip: Inside large railway stations, coolies besides carrying your luggage through crowded corridors also make the best guides to get to the right platform. What you need to keep in mind is some may overcharge. For the current prices look for the board (normally located near the entrance) that display the rates.

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