Coolies on Contract

Published in Dawn, April 17th, 2016

“…Every acquisition that is disproportionate to the labour spent on it is dishonest.”

— Leo Tolstoy

BRONZED-FACED, wearing faded red shirts with a number stitched in white, soaked in sweat, coolies old and young sit astride a pavement under the scorching sun, waiting for passengers to arrive at the Karachi Cantonment Railway Station. A few balance loads of luggage on their red turbans as they walk briskly towards the platform. A precarious livelihood, you might say. Indeed it is, and worse: coolies have to pay a 30pc commission to their contractor from their meagre daily earnings, plus a monthly fee of Rs750 — sans any workplace facilities.

Yet the contractor is not satisfied: he wants his cut raised to 40pc. Sounds outrageous?

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Off-Track Railways

THE railway system, one of the pillars of the Industrial Revolution, transformed societies, including the subcontinent, economically and socially. Henry Bartle Frere, chief commissioner of Sindh(1850-1859) had commented on the massive railway network the British planned. He said that it would unite not only the “distant provinces in one bond of material prosperity” but bring “distant peoples and races” closer to each other.

After 1947, the railways took different trajectories in India and Pakistan. While India maintained and enhanced the railways, the network saw gradual decay in Pakistan, destroying livelihoods, robbing people of prosperity and crushing their dreams and passion for their vocation — as engine drivers, boiler men, station masters, signalmen and more.

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