KARACHI: Travelling by train is often romanticised but once the journey is over and we step out of the railway stations it is easy to forget those who shared our load. Coolies are perhaps the most underrated labourers. Come rain or sunshine, as soon as a train stops at a station you will be met with many eager hands waiting to assist you and carry your luggage. One such coolie at Karachi Cantt Station is Sultan.
Dressed in loose red robes, khaki shalwar kameez and red handkerchiefs, Sultan can usually be found seated in the first row right in front of the entrance of Karachi Cantt Station along with other coolies. The place is referred to as 'Lari' among the workers.
Seated at the lari, the eyes of these coolies are riveted on the trains entering the station and they remain alert, ever ready to rush to the tracks and haggle with the passengers in search of their earnings.
The life of a coolie
"It takes a lot of hard work to be a coolie," said Sultan.
His day normally begins at the crack of dawn and continues till 10 o'clock at night during which, he tries to get as many passengers as possible. He carries their luggage from the parking area to the platform and places it in the required train compartment. Similarly, he also carries their luggage from the compartments to the parking area. Many times, if there is a lot of baggage, he works in groups with coolies and they distribute the money equally amongst themselves.
Money is always short in supply. To save some cash, Sultan said, they don't eat a proper meal during their shift. Instead they prefer to take tea. While there are several restaurants around Cantt Station, the prices for food are high. The coolies usually turn towards hotels that serve low price dishes made with vegetables and lentils to sustain them through the day, he added.
He has been working as a coolie for the past 25 years, though he only came to the Cantt Station in 2011. Born in Lodhran, he moved to cities in search of work and prior to settling in Karachi, he worked at the Bahawalpur and Multan railway stations, carrying the loads of travellers.
Sultan said that his father also worked as a coolie for 55 years and managed to raise eight children on a limited income. Later, he fell ill and died of cancer. Sultan lives in a rented quarter with his five children and wants a bright future for his children.
He has married off two of his three daughters and is working hard so that his sons do not have to work as a coolie. His sons are learning motor mechanic skills.
The wage limit
According to Sultan, the income of a coolie is unreliable. A coolie can earn only Rs300 to Rs400 a day though sometimes he can manage to earn Rs500.
The money charged by coolies for their services is not fixed and is decided by mutual agreement between the coolies and the passengers. The charges for less baggage and goods are around Rs50 to Rs100. It can exceed to Rs200 in case there is more luggage. While there are no fixed charges, there is a limit on the loads that the coolies can carry. A single worker can carry up to 40kg.
A travel bag usually weighs around 15 to 20kg and along with the luggage carried in hand, it ranges from 30 to 35kg. The coolies charge the passengers according to the number of travel bags they carry and not the weight.
Sultan shared that it was difficult to budget in the limited income. The money earned, is spent to meet the daily expenditures of the house. He added that usually coolies have little to no savings and when anyone falls ill or is met with problems they try to help each other out financially. They have their own microfinance arrangements for this purposse, he said.
He further said that some coolies with agricultural backgrounds return to their homes at the time of harvesting to make more money.
Coolies across the country face exploitation in the form of contract system. Sultan and his fellow coolies have to pay 30% of their daily income to the contractor otherwise their 'Bila' can be revoked.
The 'Bila' is metal seed, shaped like an egg, which the coolies tie on their arms. The identity number and the name of the station are inscribed on them. This armband works as a permission letter, allowing the coolie to work in the stations.
The contractor has a proper office, said Sultan, which is located behind the mosque near the rail cargo offices. He has acquired this contract from the government which means that the system is endorsed by the establishment.
Usually the taxes charged are returned to the people in the form of facilities and welfare projects. However, this tax does not offer any relief to the coolies who call it a 'rogue tax'. According to them, it is the biggest problem they face. This money is not spent on the welfare of coolies and the coolies who refuse to pay this tax are not given permission to work there.
Sultan along with other coolies at the station demanded that the amount of money collected under contract system be spent of the welfare of coolies.
No social security
Sultan informed that a large number of the coolies working at the station are old. They came to the station in search of work and have spent their lives working here.
He said that they cannot avail any facility of medical treatment. When they become ill they go to government hospitals for treatment and have to stay away from work till they get better. The coolies who have crossed the age of 60 also need the facility of pension after retirement, he added. Sharing their daily struggle to find a proper meal, Sultan said establishment of subsidise food canteens around the stations would also prove a great facility.
A prosperous tomorrow?
Sultan seemed hopeful though. He said that the number of people travelling has increased after the restoration of peace in Karachi.
He said that during the period of former railways minister Saad Rafeeq, progress was made. New trains were provided and the income of coolies increased. He said that Rafeeq made an announcement to fix monthly stipend for the coolies, but no action could be taken in this regard.
The current Railways Minister Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed is also very popular, he added, because since he took office the condition of railway system has improved. New trains were launched during the first four to five months of the current government.
According to Sultan, the coolies have many expectations from Sheikh Rasheed. He believes that Sheikh Rasheed is a public leader and labourer friendly personality. He expressed hope that the minister will focus on the problems faced by coolies. He added, however, that the increase in young coolies shows that there is no vocational training or skills improvement mechanism in the country.