As the train slowly chugged into Chhattisgarh’s Raipur station, my eyes beheld a scene I had never imagined to find in a least developed state in India.
A sari-clad porter was hurtling down the station with bags on her head. For a moment, I was unsure whether she was indeed a porter. But then she most definitely was donning the signature red jacket and on her head was the rolled up piece of cloth porters use to cushion themselves from the heavy luggage they carry.
Determined to find out more, I set out to meet this woman. And what a saga of determination and optimism her life turned out to be.
Born and brought up in Rajnandgaon, the pleasant looking and always smiling Parasai Sahu, 36, studied until Class Ten. When she turned 18, her parents got her married. Her husband worked as a bus conductor, earning about Rs 2000 per month (US$1= Rs 45.1). But the fragile state of his health meant that Parasai has no option but to look for a job to provide for her two children and her old parents-in-law. So she turned to her uncle, a porter who helped her get a sweeper’s job at Raipur station.
She worked as a sweeper for four months, earning a modest Rs 2400, which helped to supplement the family income. Then her husband gave up his job as a conductor and began working in the village cycle repair shop. This means a decrease in income. From then on, Parasai was always in search for a more paying occupation.
Opportunity came when she met Maanbai, 30. Never in her whole life would Maanbai have thought that one day she would inspire another woman to seek a better future. But Maanbai, even if she did not acknowledge it herself, had already established herself as an unusual woman. A year ago, she was appointed as the first woman porter at the Raipur railway station.
Maanbai had been married to a porter also. When her husband fell ill and died, the station authorities gave her his job. The work was arduous, without doubt, but now as the sole earning member of her family she had little choice but to carry on with all the courage she could muster.
She is currently in her training period which will last another two months. Her work will then be evaluated by a station officer. She has to undergo a medical test to get a health certificate that entailed running a distance of 400 metres and walking for 200 meters within five minutes while carrying a weight of 40 kilos. She did it.
However, life as a woman porter has its challenges. It was not the punishing work as much as the jealousy of male porters that has occasionally queered the pitch. These men waste no opportunity to harass the two of them.
Things came to a head when a male porter physically threatened Maanbai and Sahu. The women were forced to report this to the station master who fortunately stood by them. Things have been more peaceful after the incident.
The main problem they now encounter is that passengers are often reluctant to hire them.
For now, Maanbai and Parasai are the only women porters at the Raipur station. They are daily wage earners, earning Rs 100 each day on an average. The official rate for the services of a porter here is Rs 20 for every 40 kilos of luggage. Sometimes passengers tip them a few extra rupees. They get no free days, but have to apply for leave when they want the day off.
Parasai leaves home at six in the morning. It takes her about four hours to commute to the station and back. This means that she is home only around eight at night.
The tough work schedule of these two women could equal a strong man’s job. But neither Maanbai nor Parasai regret being called as porters.
Explains Parasai with great enthusiasm, “We are village women. We are strong and used to hard labour. I do not find the work tiring. I am very happy to do this work and enjoy it. I just want to get the training over and done with. Then I can continue to work with confidence, knowing that my job is permanent.”
First it was Maanbai who inspired Parasai. Now she in turn is inspiring others. “Today the women in my village ask me if they can also apply for such a job,” she smiles.