Pakistan Railways is set to change the centuries-old traditions of porters being hired by private contractors because the practice was exploitative and extorting contracts in the form of bonded labor.
Coinciding with the World Railways Workers Day, celebrated March 27, the Chief Executive Railways Zafar Zaman Ranjha said: “The proposal that is titled ‘Madadgaars,’ that means a helping hand, is ready and will be presented to the authorities for the approval in coming days. Because the private contractor exploits the wages of the porters through different and difficult contracts.”
The history of the institution of a “coolie,” or porter, on the railways on the subcontinent, is still alive after hundred years.
Their services are extremely pivotal for passengers at railway stations because the trains are designated to certain platforms and due to the old network of stairs and bridges in the stations, passengers cannot carry heavy luggage from one platform to another.
“These railway stations are not upgraded as the railway stations in Europe or West. They have a history. These bridges and stairs are more than a hundred years old. The Lahore Railway station was made shortly after 1857 and was renovated over the period of time but its main skeleton was never changed, that’s why porters are the backbone of our facilitation to the passengers and they also deserve a good wage and better quality of life,” said Zaman.
The proposal to revamp the existing porter system in the railway network is modeled on Alfred Marshall’s renowned “Efficiency Wage Theory” which signifies that higher wages induce better service delivery.
Digitalization of porter system
Along with new policies, a web-based mobile application will also be launched that will provide a database of all authorized and registered Madadgaars at a station along with their photographs and a specified file for complaints.
“With all the updated features, people will be able to pre-book the Madadgaar before coming to the station and the approved charges will be paid to the Madadgaars for their services by the passengers that will save them time and also the Madadgaars could keep the track on their earnings,” Zaman told Anadolu agency.
New uniforms and a Madadgaar desk will be set up at stations. A GPS-based armband that could pinpoint the location of Madadgaars will be implemented and it will also record the conversation between the Madadgaar and the passenger.
Legacy of the porters
Muhammad Hanif, 85, came to the Lahore Railway station after partition and can still narrate stories of passengers who traveled on trains during the partition in 1947.
“I came to Lahore from district Karnal, Panipat India and I started working as a porter on this railway station when I was 15 years old. I have seen thousands of people reaching their destinations and millions of stories unfolding in front of my eyes. But I always wished that the government should do something for us,” said Hanif.
Welcoming the decision to digitalize the porters, Ashfaq Ahmed, representative of the porter’s union said, “Who does not want to earn a better livelihood? But it is too early to say anything about this digitalization.”
Salman Rashid, Pakistan’s renowned travel writer who traveled throughout his life via train, reminisced about the old and glorious time of railway workers and said: “The station master used to wear a crisp uniform. And the porters were young and vibrant in the 1960s and 1970s. With the passage of time, our quality of rail has decreased and for that, the government is only responsible.”
Railways until the late 2000s had marvelous dine-in bogies in which the staff used to serve freshly cooked food and trained waiters used to exchange trays of food from outside of the windows and doors of the moving trains.
“The government had one task to manage the already established railway system. The glorious Khyber mail even had showers installed in it and we used to dine-in in separate areas, but they did not do it right. We have to see what their new projects will be but cannot comment on them before time. But upgrading the system with the latest technology is the need of the hour,” said Rashid.