Letter from India: Wheels of industry

Over-efficient suitcases are threatening the livelihoods of one of India’s most famous workforces

When you arrive on a train at any major Indian railway station it is likely you will have to battle a horde of red-shirted porters clambering on to your carriage as you try to disembark. Plying for trade, they will offer to carry your luggage for a fee.

But sadly the numbers of these industrious porters are declining. This is largely due to the invention of one particular item – the wheely suitcase. This innovation has been a hammer blow to the porter, and the number of coolies at stations in India has dropped significantly in the last 15 or 20 years.

When we recently arrived at Dehradun station heading down south on a trip to Goa, my wife and I turned down a porter’s offer of help. With a wheely suitcase and a couple of overnight bags between us, we could manage without his assistance.

Koi baath nahi” (“No problem”), my wife said, declining his offer. “Nahi nahi baath hai” (“There is a problem”), the porter retorted. “If people like you aren’t using us porters, what hope is there for us?”

Consciences piqued, when we arrived at Old Delhi station we employed a porter. Handing him the wheely suitcase, he promptly hoisted it on to his head before marching us over the footbridge and depositing us in exactly the right spot to board our next train. He had more than justified his fee – for just 100 rupees ($1.60, even less if you’re willing to haggle), the porter had done us a great service.

Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan famously played the role of a militant porter campaigning for the rights of his colleagues in the film Coolie in the 1980s. Today’s porters could do with a similar figurehead, and continued employment by the travelling public. Otherwise their red-shirted scurrying at busy stations could become a footnote in Indian history, which would be a great shame.

Every week the Guardian Weekly publishes a Letter from one of its readers from around the world. We welcome submissions – they should focus on giving a clear sense of a place and its people. Please send them to weekly.letter.from@theguardian.com

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