CHENNAI: In 2000, Prabhu Deva and Parthiban acted as railway porters in a movie titled ‘James Pandu’. It was an era when porters thrived as the railways became more affordable and accessible to everyone.
But 19 years later, despite the growth of the railways, porters have been left behind as passengers rush to their compartments and trains speed away.
The words 'railway station' once evoked the image of these very porters.
In Chennai, be it the Egmore station or Central station, the men in red shirts still swarm the platforms the minute a train arrives.
Porters are sometimes thought to charge an exorbitant amount of money but there is another side to the tale.
For anyone who wishes to take up the job, there are two ways - one can apply by filling a form when the railways calls for applicants or an existing porter can nominate a family member who is set to retire or quit.
The applicants may then be subjected to a suitable exam or physical test to ascertain their abilities.
The licence granted after this allows porters to carry luggage at charges fixed by the railways administration. However, they do not have a fixed monthly salary and their earnings depend on the number of customers they manage to find in a day.
According to railway officials, the availability of baggage with wheels has begun to erode the requirement of porters.
“The need for railway porters has reduced drastically. They are now reduced to moving people in wheelchairs,” said a railway official.
The introduction of escalators and lifts in railway stations has made the situation even more grave for them.
“In 1985, when I joined as a porter in Central station, we were around 600 people. Those were busy days and the demand was very high. I used to earn Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,500 every day,” says Asaithambi, who has been in this profession for the past 34 years.
Even during peak hours or festival days, the porters are just bystanders these days. "Nowadays, only old people with no one to pick them up seek our help. Most of the luggage bags have wheels and nobody wants to pay for them being pulled," said a porter working in Egmore station.
There are roughly 250 porters at Central station and 150 at Egmore station. But many complain that they are now earning only a few hundreds of rupees every day or even returning empty-handed sometimes.
Although there are few takers for them, the porters still make sure they’re available irrespective of demand. “We reach here by 2 pm and stay till the last train. Next morning, we attend to the early morning trains and then the next shift of people takes over. Though there is no salary, we still come. We have to run our family,” says Murali, a porter at Central station.
Most of the porters have taken up a second job to support their family. “We want our jobs regularised with a nominal salary. On most days, we just stand and watch,” adds Murali.
The future does not hold any hope for them. With the railways not intending to hire new porters, future generations may not know such a profession existed, unless they watch 'James Pandu'.