The last day of vacation ends and the first day of school begins. Students unload their taxis and put down big suitcases and trunks. Now the only problem is, how do they carry all those heavy suitcases and boxes all the way to their dorms?
“Coolies!” students immediately think. Undernourished, old-scrawny men and sometimes young boys rush to help students for some extra cash. While this might be normal for returning students, its a shock for the new students and their parents.
“Is this even legal?” a couple whispers amongst themselves as they look in horror at the coolies carrying three suitcases on their backs.
Usually, coolies wear old warm clothes and shoes that are on the brink of falling apart. They’ll take the students’ heavy baggage without any complaints and tie them up on their backs. What seems like the longest and the most awkward trip to dorms, begins.
Guilt creeps in as the students look at the coolies’ faces adorned with kind smiles regardless of their circumstances. “I feel bad sometimes but they chose this profession,” said Sabrina Sookias, Class of 2018.
Students and parents always pay them. “I usually pay [coolies that aren’t hired by the school] a hundred rupees,” said Eva Khanpara, Class of 2018.
This culture of coolies originated from South Africa where the term ‘Coolie’ referred to indentured workers from India.
“Obviously, no one wants to willingly do this work, but they’re doing it for a reason. Whatever money most of them earn, they send it back to their families in Nepal. So, in the end its worth it,” said Jayant Singh, Class of 2018.
Singh has spent almost his entire life at Woodstock and has seen the coolies working since the day he can remember. He calls the coolies “superhumans” and has the utmost respect for them. However, he said, “A lot of the students don’t even notice the coolies. It’s something that happens like any other ordinary action such as wearing clothes.”
Rajendra Prasad Neupane is one of the Nepali coolies hired by Woodstock. He’s been doing this labor work for the past two years and attended school up until grade 11. He only works at Woodstock. On an average, he earns 450 rupees a day.
When asked if his salary is enough for him, he said, “A man can never have enough money. But yes, I can afford everyday expenses.”
Of course, lifting heavy objects for a living has to affect a person’s physical health. “My back hurts all the time, but I have to do this work for money. I don’t think it’s the right kind of work, but it’s all I can do,” Neupane said.
Manoj Bahadur Pandit is another Nepali coolie hired by Woodstock. He is 50 years old and has been working as a coolie for the past 18 years. He earns about 500 rupees a day. “My salary is more than enough for me,” Pandit said.
“My back hurts but I won’t ever leave this work. If sometimes it gets too much, then I go to the doctor,” he said.
The coolies themselves think this kind of work is unethical. Mr. Ajay Mark, Head of Physical Education, seemed to agree with this. “Ethically, this is wrong because they’re being harmed, I mean I’ve seen a coolie carrying a fridge all by himself. Even during going down day, these coolies used to carry three-four trunks and cover long distances.”
However, just like a coin, this situation has two sides to it. Dr. Jonathan Long, Woodstock principal, said, “When I first came to India I saw old people digging in the roads by hand and I thought that was terrible. I thought, why not get a bulldozer, you’ll do it in five minutes. But someone told me, you’ll put fifteen people out of work and they will no longer be able to feed their families. Something that would seem very odd in other countries actually has a justification in this context. But that shouldn’t stop us from uplifting people and helping them.”
The school also does what it can to help. “We have hired a group of coolies based on Woodstock’s daily usage,” Shailesh Garg, Head of the Finance Department, said. “Whether we use them or not, they come to school early in the morning and still get paid. On average, coolies earn 700 to 800 rupees, which is more than the local rate.”
One would think there is a solution to the problem of men doing this kind of work. But it’s not that easy. “It all boils down to population and poverty. In developing countries like India, how are the poor going to survive? They have to do something. They can’t get out of the cycle of poverty,” said Mr. Mark.
But, he added, “Mrs. Mark has been working with these coolies. She collaborated with Amnesty International and collected warm clothes for the coolies. By taking these small steps, we can make their work easier.”
An idea for a PASSAGE solely based around coolies and helping them came up. Mr. Mark said, “I would love to see a PASSAGE that focuses on coolies. It’s a very good idea. Maybe one day we can miss a meal and raise funds for them. Instead of just giving them money, maybe start a medical insurance for them. I would love to see students get involved and start this initiative.”