Usha Drukpa, Thimphu
People dump their lavish luggage or things on coolies (porters) at the prices hardly equitable to their strenuous labour to reach the things at its destination. People pay them but only after much haggling. And that is the last the people see them until the next time.
But who are coolies? And how did they become the bearers of our loads?
These skinny little people- half naked, wearing lungis with gamchas (their uniform) over their shoulders, wanders at different places from the dawn till dusk carrying bags of all kinds in the border towns.
They have rendered their services to our forefathers and it is unlikely that the coolie system will end anytime soon. Not only does the network provide bread and butter to hundreds of coolies and their families, it is robustly thriving on the people’s demand.
Most of the businessmen accept that they are dependent on the coolies whenever they have consignments to deal or transport goods since the rates that they charge are very nominal.
Even to bring a bag of rice or to refill their gas cylinder, the local residents hire the coolies. In a way, the residents say that they are ‘indeed a friend in need’.
The general view about coolies and their awareness is a negative one. In the Bhutanese mindset, manual labour has rarely been regarded as a dignified work in the country, and thus, unemployment problem has aggravated. If this vacuum is filled, unemployment in the country could be resolved to some extent.
Most of the people think that the coolies are an illiterate. But according to Ajaz Khan, some of them even hold Degree certificates. Ajaz himself had completed a degree course in Bihar but failed to pursue for higher education owing to some domestic problems.
“We are very much aware of the progress in the world. We know that advances in technology are making manual labour redundant. Even a small advancement like wheels on luggage affects our livelihood,” said Khan.
According to a shopkeeper, Tshering Dorji, services of the coolies cannot be denied but to rely on them all the time is, otherwise, an income outflow. If a taxi is hired for transporting petty things rather than deploying five coolies, revenue will be circulated within the country.
A coolie on an average earns around Nu 200 in a day. There are around 200 coolies in the town and in a month, about Nu 1.2 millions of our money is going out the form of coolie charge.
As such, unlike in India, there is no fixed hire charge in Bhutan but to carry a bag weighing 50 kilograms, they charge not less than Nu 50 and that too depending upon the distance that they have to carry.
One of the truck owners said that he had to pay Nu 1,500 to five coolies for unloading construction materials which he had transported from Siliguri.
When asked how they charge for their service, many said that they accept whatever they are given. In fact, they would demand for more money if they feel that the amount given to them are inequitable to the service rendered.
For the coolies to come in Bhutan, they need not have to produce documents approved by the immigration officials. They can produce their voter ID card and work for the whole day.
According to some of the coolies, they had a better time when the government used to permit Thela (tailor) system. “It was much easier when Thela was allowed in the town. It has been more than a decade since the government had banned its use in the towns,” said Ratan, who has been working as a coolie for last 30 years.
He mentioned that he used to earn more in the past because there was less competition among themselves. “It is also partly because of my age that I cannot work more,” he said.
To work as a coolie in Bhutan is easy but to find a place to work is very difficult. Coolies at truck parking area would not allow any new person to work in their area because it is already overcrowded. Similarly, coolies working at bus terminal and Tashi building area deos not welcome the new ones.
Though, some of them work on daily wage basis but most are not. Coolies in the ZangtoPelri area have their own group and whatever they earn in a day, they divide it equally before going back home.
In India, the coolies can work anywhere they like and their recruitment basically runs on the system of ‘badge transfer’. It means that the coolies who consider themselves no longer fit to work can surrender their badges by transferring it to a relation of their nomination (son, brother, nephew or brother-in-law).