The Distress of the Men in Red

Rachel Hudson

Chennai

The blaring announcements do not make Kuppan, a 44-year-old porter flinch as he keenly sets eyes on the cab entering the station, he hurries and positions himself right at their door but in no time is shunned by the passengers. 

Since the existence of railway stations, porters have played an important role by assisting passengers with their heavy baggage. Standing out from the crowd in their dashing red uniforms a group of porters seated on a trolley keep a sharp eye on the incoming crowd hoping to nab a passenger and start earning for the day at Puratchi Thalaivar Dr MGR Central railway station.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, trains were suspended in the month of April 2020 and this took a major toll on the porters. With railway stations closed and no job in hand many porters relied on the meagre savings they had to get through the pandemic, while some of them moved back to their hometowns in search of jobs. “I went back to Kancheepuram and did agricultural work to earn a living” said Kuppan. V. Sivaraman (40) who works as a porter in Central station did odd jobs to support his family during the pandemic.

During the pandemic the plight of workers was miserable.  “The government said they would provide an amount for all the workers but we never received anything; it was just word of mouth. After a long time, they gave Rs.1000 per month only for unorganized works” said K. Radhakrishnan, All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), Union Leader. Porters who fall under the category of organized workers did not receive any aid from the government during the pandemic.

“If we make any demand or ask the government for anything, the state government is quick to blame the central government and the central government blames the state government but nobody looks into our problems or even tries to resolve it” says Sivaraman in a frustrated tone.

A porter carries a suitcase on his head while having two more bags weighing on his shoulders                   Source: The Tribune

20 years ago, there used to be 607 porters in Central station. Half of these porters were recruited by the railways to clean and offer their services in the trains. “Currently there are 298 porters working in the Central station” said M. Munuswamy (67), Head of the porters, popularly called ‘Maistry’. When Munuswamy began his work as a porter in 1974, there were 46 Head porters but the decline in the profession resulted in only 6 Head porters in 2021.

Working for 27 years as a porter, Kuppan.S has noticed various changes that occurred causing a hindrance to their profession. Learning the profession from his father, Kuppan began working as a porter at the age of 17. “I started working in 1994 at that time we used to earn Rs. 1000 in a day, now we struggle to earn Rs.200 in a day” says Kuppan as the clock struck 3 pm and he hadn’t earned a rupee since 6 am .

The porters have three spots where they stand looking for passengers. A group stands at the main entrance to the station, one group near the drop off point for passengers and another at the side entrance. The porters take turns awaiting passengers at the three hotspots. As people started opting for trolley bags rather than hand held one’s, passengers became self-sufficient and didn’t have to depend on porters to carry their luggage. “I come to the station at 5:30 am and I leave only after I make at least Rs.200” said K. Jagan (48), Porter. Having worked for 19 years as a porter, Jagan does not know any other profession other than what he does. 

The only demand porters have is to get a permanent railway job so that they can earn a steady income but their demands seem far off from happening.