Interacting with dozens of porters at the New Delhi Railway Station here, Gandhi said he wants to hear their problems in detail. “I want to build a relationship with you, I want to hear your problems in detail,” he told the porters, according to tweets from the Indian National Congress’ official Twitter handle.
Today, ahead of the interim Railway budget, continuing his exploration of the world of the very poor, Rahul Gandhi went to New Delhi Railway Station to a semi-impromptu meeting with porters or coolies, as they are called. The Congress Vice President spent nearly an hour with coolies, listening to the way they work, their aspirations for their children and their hunger for dignity.
Babuji, “we finish our work and go home to call our parents ma ji and babuji” a porter said. While at work, we use the same words ten times a day for our clients. That’s the relationship a coolie has with the traveller, and yet, they are treated like scum sometimes” said a coolie to a visibly moved Rahul Gandhi.
Gandhi asked about the loads coolies had to carry on their heads and listened intently as coolies said they were paid Rs.40 per headload in Delhi but half that amount in smaller cities. Coolies asked for better working conditions – trollies to carry heavier pieces of luggage, which had vanished from railway station in 1996; two sets of uniforms a year, one for the summer and another for the winter; health facilities; and a chance to become something in life (“we want our children to get a chance to wear a black uniform – worn by the ticket collector – not a red one – worn by coolies all over India”).
“I can only promise one thing. I’ll do whatever I can for you, with my heart,” he said. “I will take your problems to the railway ministry so that they can solve your problems,” he said. “Your time is your money and you have spent your money by giving me your time,” Gandhi added.
To the porters’ demand for a complimentary pass for the entire family not once but twice in a year, he promised to take it up with Kharge.
Gandhi, who has been interacting with members of marginalised sections, also promised them that they should get immediate compensation if they met with an accident during the course of their work.
Gandhi provoked the coolies: “shouldn’t you have rights ?” he asked. He reminded them of the NREGA, the Right to food and the right to education. “Yes” chanted the coolies, nodding in unison. The Congress leader also said that they should get their “right” so that they could provide security to themselves and to their families.
The gangmen – those who work to maintain train tracks – had their own complaints. “We work 11 hours. In theory we get a three hour lunch break but we have to eat our lunch where we are inspecting the track. We cannot leave our site: no matter how hot or cold it is” said a gangman. “We are engineers but have had to do this job because of our economic circumstances. We must be given a chance to improve ourselves…”
Gandhi talked about the need to create a concrete support base with “basic minimum rights” for 70 crore people of the strata between BPL and middle class, a theme he has of late been repeatedly talking about.
“In India, there are 70 crore people who do different odd jobs, they want to go forward. They want a little help. We take everyone’s voice to the government for the betterment of their life.
“We want to strengthen the ground beneath this 70 crore people. I promise you that I will do whatever I can to help you,” Gandhi said.
During interactions, Gandhi also said coolies should have a right of health and when they are injured in course of their job and they should be treated by authorities.
Gandhi saw a world of some theatrics – he seemed amused by the practised way and flowery language coolies used to address the meeting – but most of all he appeared to see a group of marginalised people, hungering for upward mobility.
Television networks arrived almost miraculously to record Gandhi’s interaction with the symbol of the most oppressed in the Indian social system.