Residents of Darjeeling cart away luggage on Thursday because of the strike by porters. Picture by Suman Tamang
Darjeeling, Oct. 4: Around 2,000 porters, the most indispensable people in the everyday hill life, launched an indefinite strike today to protest a Darjeeling municipality order that asked them to register with the civic body for Rs 800.
The hill residents depend on the porters to carry luggage, rations, gas cylinders and building materials among others, apart from loading and unloading.
The porters — most of them are from Nepal — are an integral part of the service system in Darjeeling as most of the houses and hotels are inaccessible by roads and are located on hill slopes. Today, many residents were seen lugging away goods because of the strike.
Amar Singh Rai, the chairperson of the Darjeeling municipality, said a porter had to pay the civic body a one-time amount of Rs 800. “The fee is for registration, a jacket for identification and also an identity card,” he said.
Apart from the registration fee, the porters have been asked to pay a monthly tax of Rs 45 also. The civic body made the registration mandatory as most of the luggage carriers are from Nepal.
“We wanted to keep tabs on the porters as we have found out that most of them are from Nepal and they come to Darjeeling to work for six months. We wanted to keep a data bank of these people and their details can be sent to police stations for references if needed,” said Rai.
The municipality said the move would also help deal with any complaint of harassment by the porters.
The porters, however, said Rs 800 was too high for them.
“They are just giving us one jacket and given the nature of work, it will tear within a week. We cannot afford to buy or make jackets continuously. The fees are steep for us,” said Krishna Chhetri, a porter.
A porter earns around Rs 5,000 a month on an average.
The strike forced the residents to carry goods and do the loading and unloading themselves.
Ammole Mani, a gas agency owner here, said 70 per cent of the cylinders were delivered by porters on a given day.
“As the porters went on strike, we couldn’t supply the cylinders today. If the strike continues, the consumers will face problems in the days to come,” he said.
The porters were asked to complete the registration by October 1. They wouldn’t be allowed to work if the registration is not done, though the civic body has taken no such action yet.
But the carriers alleged that municipality workers had destroyed a water can of Kavindra Katthay, a porter, at Judge Bazaar for not wearing the jacket.
A municipality worker said the water cans had been destroyed because it was unhygienic and had mosses. The porters carry water in containers and supply them to houses, teashops and restaurants in hand-pulled carts.
Another porter said the municipality workers had forced Ratna Maya Thami to take the load back for not wearing the uniform.
The porters say they number around 2,000 and 30 per cent of them are women. “If we are asked to leave, we will go back to Nepal. After all, we have to carry load wherever we go,” said a porter.
In the evening, posters appeared in town, telling the striking workers to attend a meeting tomorrow to discuss the future course of action.
The municipality said only a fraction of the porters was refusing to register with the civic body. “Already 450 porters have registered. Only a small faction is opposing the move and is instigating others not to work. If the crisis persists, we will have to work out an alternative plan,” said Rai.