Photo Essay by Chhandak Pardhan*
On the congested road outside Kolay Market- Calcutta's largest wholesale vegetable market, one often comes across group of well built men in colourful turbans. Wrestling bundles weighing hundreds of kilograms onto the turban-wrapped heads of fellow workers, they deliver bushels of veggies from the trucks and carts outside to the wholesalers. Life for these human forklifts is tough. The market remains open 24X7. Working in shifts of 12 hours or more they earn around $8 a day. Most of these migrant workers come from villages in Bihar. They start working young. By the time they reach 40, many are forced to retire due to degenerative diseases caused by the weight of the loads they carry.
On the congested road outside the market, a flurry of activity marks the arrival of a truck. No sooner the bushels of veggies are offloaded, a group of well-built men in colourful turbans get to work. They wrestle bundles weighing hundreds of kilograms onto the turban-wrapped heads of fellow porters. In a matter of minutes they disappear within the inner recesses of the market to deliver the fresh produce.
Each team generally has 15-16 men, mostly from the same extended family or village. They work shifts of eight to twelve hours. Some of us even work seven days a week, says Ramod Yadav, a team leader. The bundles that arrive vary in weight. The smaller ones are not more than 200 kg and do not require more than three people. The bigger loads can weigh more than 400 kilos and require the collective effort of five men. The wholesalers pay the team leader and money is divided accordingly.
Kolay market is located near Sealdah Station, an important suburban rail terminal. A bulk of Calcutta's vegetable supply from the rural areas passes through this market. Supplies keep coming and the market never sleeps. Inside, it is organised chaos. There are separate sections for onions, potatoes, chillies, pumpkins and seasonal greens such as cabbages and tomatoes. Choc-a-bloc with buyers, the narrow lanes are slippery with rotting vegetables. The smell of fresh and rotting greens, along with those of chilli and garlic make it an overwhelming experience.
While they draw admiring glances from passers-by, the porters are prone to degenerative diseases caused by the weight of the loads they carry.
Ramashankar Yadav, who works a gruelling shift from 5pm to 5 am, says, "After an usual day I have pains in my shoulders and neck. Sometimes my legs hurt too." They start as young as 15 and by the age of 40 the pain gets unbearable. Then they retire to their villages and work as sharecroppers.
The market remains open 24X7. Working in shifts of up to 12 hours, the porters earn around $5 a day. Most of these workers are from Bihar, the third populous state of India. The incidence of out-migration from rural Bihar is probably greater than anywhere else in India.
For Rammangal Yadav, working at the market for the past 20 years, the benefits outweigh his discomfort. "My shift is from 7am to 6pm," he says. He earns upto $13 per day and can afford to send his two sons to school. "I want them to have a better life," he says.
The market remains open 24X7. Working in shifts of up to 12 hours, the porters earn around $5 a day.
* Chandak Pradhan is an editorial photographer and freelance journalist based in Kolkata, India. He started his career as a reporter at 22. Few chance encounters and internships later, Chhandak now specializes in conceptualising content for editorial projects, still and motion picture shoots, multimedia journalism along with writing features and interviews. He is part of Babel Images- an international collective of documentary photographers and has worked with British Council, Deutsche Bank, Stop TB, Save The Children, etc on various projects.