Lucknow: The second wave of the pandemic and heavy restrictions imposed on the Railways to curb the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) are driving scores of coolies (railway porters) in Lucknow and other stations in Uttar Pradesh closer to extreme poverty. With work barely picking up after the first wave of the pandemic when train services came to a halt, uncertainties are now looming large over their livelihoods, children’s education and medical care for near and dear ones.
Eking a living from carrying the heavy luggage of travellers for a nominal fee, these porters had even helped returning migrant workers by not charging them any money. Today, most of them are burdened with debts and are struggling to make both ends meet due to the second pandemic wave, which has severely hit their source of income.
Ram Suresh Yadav, a coolie who works at the Charbagh station, stares every day at the deserted platforms and rail tracks, hoping to get some business but has been returning home empty-handed. He said since regular trains were suspended for the last one year, they have been pushed to the brink of starvation. “I am left with no money to feed my family of four after two months without work,” he said, adding that it has been more than a year since they had been sending representations to both state and Central governments, highlighting their plight.
Karmveer, another porter at the Charbagh railway station says the past one year had been hard for him and his family. “I have been working here as a coolie for the past 15 years. I have no other source of livelihood. Due to the pandemic-induced lockdown, I am out of work and have no money now,” he said.
The National Federation of Railway Porters has also written a letter to the Ministry of Railways and Northern Railway's general manager, seeking their help for basic facilities, including medical facilities, gloves and masks and education for their children, as the pandemic has pushed them to the brink of starvation.
"There are around 300 coolies at Charbagh railway station, out of which almost 95 returned to their native places after the andemic created havoc last year. With the massive second wave of COVID-19 sweeping through India, the situation is significantly worse this time. The ones who did not return home are now thinking of leaving as there is no help coming from anywhere. The question arises, what will we do if we return to our village as we do not have land or are skilled workers," Ram Suresh Yadav, president of National Federation of Railway Porters, told NewsClick.
Narrating the plight of porters, another person said: "Both Centre and State government do not consider us as Railway employees despite us working for the Railways. The Central government says we are not permanent employees so we should ask for financial assistance from the state government. When we approach the state government, they say as we work for the Railways, the Central government should help us,” said Yadav, adding that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government is making fun of poor people as they are not delivering what they had promised before coming to power.
Meanwhile, on Friday, a group of coolies held a token protest at Charbagh in support of their demands. They organised a meeting where unions of other stations also joined in.
"For the last one year, we are hearing about many welfare schemes launched by the government for the crisis. But, we have been left out of the benefits. It is unfortunate that the government is spending lakhs of rupees on election campaign and crores on advertisements to show their 'achievements' but not a single penny on daily wagers like us,” rued a porter, adding that they had been demanding a special package or alternative employment opportunities to meet their daily expenses, but in vain.
The porters’ union also demanded for a fixed income from the Railways as they have spent decades working as porters at Charbagh Railway Station.
The president of Workers Front, Dinkar Kapoor, who was also part of the meeting and initiated the dialogue from porters’ side, said: “The government should not forget that these red-uniformed porters have been an integral part of railway life and when they are in dire need, they are thrown out on the tracks. On one hand, the government claims about several schemes for those working in unorganised sectors but not a single penny under any scheme have these coolies received in the past one year,” Kapoor told Newsclick.