Curious Case of Coolie Badge – Last vestige of License Raj?

Hindustan Times 25-May-13 p. 9 W. Railway Ahmedabad Div. NoticeThe Notice published in Hindustan Times on 25 May 2013 informing Subhanbhai Alfubhai Teli of the cancellation of his coolie badge would have provided a comic relief to otherwise dreary news if it were not a sad reflection of the way government works. To be sure this Notice must have been carried in at least two other national dailies, one of them being a vernacular news paper. I am not sure how much it had cost the Indian Railways (IR) to place this notice but surely a lot more than what Shubhanbhai having two badges would have cost Railways, if at all.

As much as I was amused by this advert, I was more than curious to know why this badge business so important for the Indian Railways. The IR web site did not carry any information on the subject; but a little search rewarded me with a very informative article – ‘Licensing of the Railway Porters: Burden of the Badge’ by Mayank Singhal which I strongly recommend everyone to read.

Railways license a certain number of porters for a railway station based on the passenger traffic. Given the entry level restriction, the porters work as a cartel and this is how it works. ‘Porters begin to assemble at the station a few minutes before the arrival of the train. Along the platform there are demarcations that divide the entire platform into a number of parts (called hadh) and each of these parts extends up to about 50 meters (approximately the length of a train bogie). There is a common understanding that a first-come-first serve system will be followed in each hadh. Within each of these areas, a maximum of 4-5 porters assemble initially. On arrival of the train, they approach passengers and get customers in the same order as they assembled. Unless the first porter leaves a passenger of his own will, the others do not come and undercut him with regard to the charges.’

Although a porter is not an employee of IR, he enjoys quite a few privileges such as complimentary train pass for self in sleeper class to travel to any part of India once a year, a Privilege Ticket Order entitling a 70 percent discounted fare for self and spouse for travel to any part of India annually, admission of children to schools run by IR and treatment in its hospitals subject to availability, flexi working hours (he can goof off, if he does not want to work on a particular day or catch forty winks in the afternoon) and so on. But the biggest benefit of all is the freedom to pass on his license to a close relative when he calls it a day. Due to this there is a huge premium on the license; and as of 2003 a porter’s license in New Delhi railway station commanded a premium of Rs 3 lakh! This holds the clue to the above advertisement by Western Railways.

There is no doubt that provision of porters at the railways stations should be regulated in some manner; to begin with a porter must be identifiable by some uniform or a badge, if you will, so that a passenger hands her luggage to an authorized porter only. But is this kind of licensing and creating a right of ownership in the license the only way of doing it?

Appointment of close relative of a government servant who passes away while in service on compassionate grounds creates a similar right in employment. While the intention, as with all such benfits, is well meaning the system leaves a large scope for misuse and introduces an element of entitlement which is not conducive for efficiency. Although fresh recruitment was restricted in the government, compassionate appointments continued and became the order of the day. Unlike fresh recruitment where a candidate is selected on an objective assessment of merit, those recruited on compassionate grounds just need to meet the minimum qualification.

There must be many such procedures in the government which create vested interests and inefficiencies in the system. It is time we looked at them and done something about it.

                                                                             Srinivas Kumar Alamuru

[Disclaimer: Views expressed are those of the author and do not represent the views of CBPS.]

0 thoughts on “Curious Case of Coolie Badge – Last vestige of License Raj?

  1. Sebastian Ouseph

    Hi Srini,
    Had the time to read your blog for the fist time……

    To your concluding remark, “It is time we looked at them and done something about it”, I really wonder if indeed it is really time to look at such issues. Sure, there are many more such issues in our society where things are not as they ought to be. But then the question is – to what extent do these ‘chota mota’ issues adversely impact the country’s economy or widen income disparities in society?

    Are there not issues of more import or significance (the ‘big fish’) which actually need to engage society’s attention more urgently? Issues where, by a single illegal transaction, billions of rupees change hands. Issues which make headlines in the press with alarming regularity and then lose our attention with equally alarming regularity; issues which society is very much aware of but are forced to watch helplessly without being able to do anything about them; issues which have significant adverse impact on the country’s economy; issues which create abnormal/unreasonable income disparities etc? Pray, when is the (right) time to be looking at such type of issues and doing something about them?



    1. Srinivas

      I agree that there are ‘big issues’ that need to be fixed. I am not suggesting that they should not be fixed. Fixing big and small issues are not mutually exclusive. The government’s time and energy are dissipated on such trivial issues that there is no time or energy to deal with the big issues. If the entire administration is toned up – removing the unnecessary chaff (the ‘c’ class items), then it can focus on the real big issues you talk about.

      You will be surprised to know that the Principal Secretary (Education) of a state spends twenty out of twenty six working days attending various administrative tribunals and courts dealing with disputes regarding seniority, promotions, disciplinary cases, etc. A great deal of money, time and energy of government is spent on managing its own house.

  2. Chandrasekhar

    Nice and interesting piece, Srinivas garu. That the job on retirement passes onto the progeny is practiced in the organization where I currently work too!! We are both vestiges of the the “Khaandaan” era.

    You are right. By spending their time and energies on trivia, the officials may be losing focus and track of the more important issues. But then, the babu who was dealing with the matter would have got a memo (to begin with) if he had not proceeded the way he did in the instance quoted (reg. badge). You know, I know, in government, procedures are important. Outputs are not. Outcomes – much lesser. Coming out of Mumbai airport I always used to wonder why on the sign boards “Shahar” in Devanaagari is written twice – one below the other – until I realized one is supposed to be Hindi and the other – Marathi version – though they are written exactly the same way in both the languages. But then, procedures are sacrosanct – aren’t they?

    Happy blogging!


    Chandrasekhar, Hyderabad.


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