Rishi Majumder scrapes the sheen off the proposed ‘privatisation’ of our railway shoeshine industry, a world that has been zealously protected by our boot polishwallahs
Photographer: Rana Chakraborty
How you’ve grown over 20 years,” says an old gentleman, to Ram Kishan Mehra, before going his way. He has seen Mehra, now 35, since he left his studies in Class IV to shine shoes because his elder brother died accidentally on the rail tracks.
Today, Mehra is secretary of The Bombay Harijan Cooperative Society, in charge of shoe shiners in a zone which extends from Khar Road to Goregaon station on the Western Line. Mumbai’s shoeshine industry is run by 10 such societies. A month ago, the members of these societies united to stage a protest against a government tender inviting bids from other parties for shoe-shining contracts on six zones along the Central and Harbour Lines. National policy protects societies older than ten years from this bidding. But national policy is dictated by precedent. As put by Devichand Bamaniya, Chairman of the Maharashtra Boot Polish Cooperative Society: “What is used to oust the new will later oust the old. And vice versa.”
“The first cooperative society to be registered was ours, in 1959,” says Basant Ram, secretary of the Ravi Das Cooperative Society. “The idea was propounded and supported by railway minister Babu Jagjivan Ram.” Two other societies — Dhanak Industrial and Bombay Boot Polish — were set up subsequently. These pioneers owe their origin to educated well-wishers like Jagjivan Ram, who organized an illiterate migrant workforce, in a profession figuratively and literally looked down upon, into associations electing their own leaders. From 1965, with increased awareness, more societies were formed by shoe-shiners themselves.
“A shoeshine man earns between Rs 75 to 150 per day,” informs Jai Bhagwan, Secretary of the Dhanak Industrial Cooperative Society (Mumbai’s biggest shoeshine society). “Of this approximately Rs 30 per day goes towards buying work material, and Rs 10 to 12 per day is paid to the society.” The society, in turn, pays a stipulated maximum of Rs 5 per day to the railways, while using the remainder for its expenses, fixing the yearly amount paid to the railways at Rs 1800. The new bids for yearly contracts, from parties proposing to register themselves as cooperative societies, are outlandishly high. The highest, by a Mr R B Singh, for a zone comprising stations from Thane to Kalyan on the central line, is Rs 4,17,600. Even if these ‘societies’ increase the per day charge to each shoeshine man by five fold, they will not be able to recover the amount bid. Why then are these amounts being bid?
Each person quoted thus far has answered this question identically: “The bidder, on getting the contract, will ask each shoeshine man in his zone to pay ‘on the side’ an amount ranging from Rs 10,000 to 20,000 to continue. If they refuse, their licenses will be handed over to new entrants, for the same ‘price’.” This will recover cost and profit, while on paper he continues to show a loss. With open bidding setting in, however, there will be a new bidder next year who will make similar ‘on the side’ demands, retrenching some more shoe shine men, and so on.
The various secretaries and chairmen gave us these bytes between scrubbing a boot, or clacking their brushes on foot-stands to beckon a customer. “But the new bidders don’t shine shoes themselves,” Ram Prasad, a boot polisher at Dadar who swears by his cooperative tells us. “They are servicemen or business people looking for a quick buck.” They will not, like these societies, fight for a room for boot polishers to store ware, free train passes or medical insurance (as the porters have). “They will treat us,” emphasizes Ram Prasad, “with the same contempt that has prevented others from giving us these facilities.”
“This is not privatisation!” protests Shriniwas Mudgerikar, Chief PRO, Central Railways, on being questioned. “Privatisation is when the government divests its stake to a private party.” The press rejoinder the railways has issued clarifies the same. Which is correct. Assigning a ‘zone’ to the ‘highest bidder’ harks back instead to the pre-privatisation era of the license raj, where government policy often served as shield for monopolistic carpet bagging.
The losers now, as then, will be those steadily saving enough to ensure their children don’t follow in their shoes. “One of us got out of this line to become a banker,” the shoeshine men had mentioned excitedly. Their excitement compounded when we told them two South American presidents, Malcolm X, world renowned musicians James Brown and Jose Asuncion Flores, professional golfer Lee Trevino and filmmaker Oscar Micheaux were boot polishers too. There will also be other losers if this bidding raises prices and depletes the number of shoe shiners as expected. The middle class office-goer hoping, with five rupees, to rescue his image from the trampling it has received in an overcrowded train compartment. And his boss, waiting to tell a man by his shoes.
This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India: http://alturl.com/fyk3