Saturday, Jun 25, 2022

Shimla's Coolies Are Vanishing Into Oblivion

It was the British who brought thousands of coolies to Shimla when they turned the place into the summer capital of India.

Shimla's Coolies Are Vanishing Into Oblivion
Motorised transport, and recently the Covid-19 pandemic, is pushing the coolies out of business

There’s a very peculiar structure that will come to the minds of those who know Shimla intimately, when one says the words ‘Load-Rester’. A small, usually white coloured, cubical parapet along one of the many winding roads in Shimla. The image of the parapet is usually accompanied by a bustle of coolies, unburdening their loads on the ‘Load Rester’, taking a small break between their jobs. 

Thousands of coolies, who were brought by the British when they turned Shimla into the summer capital of India, could be seen hovering around these parapets, and keeping the town’s supply-chain running. But that was then. Now motorised transport, and recently the Covid-19 pandemic, is pushing the coolies out of business and structures such as these parapets are quickly turning into disused British artefacts.  

“Things have changed a lot in Shimla. Now people have a lot of money. They own big cars. Earlier tourists would reach here in the transport buses or on Kalka-Shimla toy trains. Now, they come in their own cars and drive straight to their hotels. Same with businesses as well. We don’t earn as much as we used to,” feels 66-yr old coolie Sewa Ram. 

He claims many coolies have returned back to their villages and either started small businesses or turned to farming. The next generation, he says, is not interested in working as coolies. It’s a decision that was perhaps catalysed by the breakout of, and subsequent restrictions placed due to Covid-19.  

Those who haven’t left, including people like 61-year-old Shayam Lal, a third generation coolie, rue local municipality’s decision to dismantle the remaining Load Resters.  

“We can’t place heavy loads, goods and articles anywhere on the road as there are chances of the good breaking or getting damaged. Now we’re forced to walk long stretches, with heavy goods strapped to our backs, without taking a break,” says 52 year old coolie Mohammad Altaf.

It was said that Shimla’s coolies carry the entire economy of the town on their backs, so vital were they considered to the local economy. Some locals, such as Narinder Kataria, a former Shimla Mayor, who has been living here since 1940’s, still feel that coolies are indispensable. In certain parts of Shimla, where traffic is prohibited, the 12,000 to 14,000 strong force of coolies becomes the only means of freight carriage.  

“Coolies are the lifeline of Shimla. They can’t be replaced by another mode of goods carriage system. It’s because all houses and localities are not connected by roads, or even the good carriage vehicle can’t reach near all the homes, wooden cottages or flats,” Kataria says.

Among the things that have begun to disappear with the coolies are the facilities that the municipality used to offer to them, such as shelter homes, hospitals and schools, says Prakash Lohumi, a veteran journalist based out of Shimla. 

“The Shimla Municipal Corporation, one of the oldest urban civic bodies of the country, has been abdicating its responsibilities towards the upkeep of coolies. There used to be ‘deras’ – small shelter homes of coolies - in almost every locality. The municipality earlier used to have facilities such as hospitals, schools, transport service, fire brigade, water supply etc. All that’s going now,” Lohumi says. 

A large number of Shimla’s coolies are migrant labourers from Kashmir, referred to, fondly, as the Khans. Some of them feel that despite all the odds, Shimla is still a better place to earn one’s  living than Kashmir. 

“Kashmir was a jannat but militancy and dynasty politics of two families totally spoiled it for us. There are no jobs there. A small patch of land can’t feed a family in Kashmir. Shimla’s climate suits us well. Tourist seasons and local businesses sustain us. This is our only source of livelihood,” says 51-year-old Hamid, who has been working here as a coolie since he was 29 years old. He also has fond memories of his late father having worked here also as a coolie. 

 As cities turn smart and tourists turn wealthier, the occupation of thousands like Hamid becomes untenable. Perhaps in a few years all of Shimla’s coolies will disappear. But to those who have grown with the town, ‘Load Resters’ will serve as a reminder of these one-off mobile freight machines.