For over half-a-century, these men in blue have been an intrinsic part of Mumbai’s lifeline, its local railways. Swayed by a sense of gratitude and the spirit of nationalism, about 1,000 boot-polish wallas will now be part of the fledgling political movement led by Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the city.
For these shoe-shine men, who will actively campaign for AAP in Mumbai, it is their chance to pay back their debt to the person who once saved their jobs. In 2007-08, party ideologue Yogendra Yadav had come to their rescue when the Central Railways decided to privatise shoe-shine stalls by handing it over to the highest-bidding firm. Six years down the line, the shoe-shine men have decided to repay him by dedicating four hours of their 12-hour work schedule for party campaign and membership drives in and around railway stations.
“Back then, we held several demonstrations but it was Yadav who took us to the then railway minister Lalu Prasad, which led to the Central Railways scrapping its privatisation plans. He was instrumental in drafting a policy whereby we pay railways a licence fee with a six per cent hike each year,” says Shyam Sundar Ram from the Boot Polish Kamgar Sangh Samiti, which has under its aegis 10 unions of shoe-shine men. Ram himself is a shoe-shine man, working out of a small booth at Dadar railway station since his grandfather’s time.
The tribe is unique to Mumbai’s railway platforms from Churchgate to Virar and from CST to Kalyan. Each of the 1000-odd men pay a licence fee of Rs 263 per month to the railways. In return, they are allowed to eke out a livelihood by polishing shoes of commuters, with each of them earning Rs 100 to Rs 200 daily. “We were allowed to making a living on platforms beginning 1961 when Jagjivan Ram was the railway minister,” says Ram.
As part of their campaign plans, the shoe-shine men will spread the word about AAP in the city’s local trains and in booths outside railway stations. “Even if we want to campaign for the party while we polish shoes, we can’t do so as the railways might act against us for using their premises for political purposes or some political party may lash out against us. Hence, the plan is to start work at 7 am as usual and wrap up early by 2 pm and use the remaining time for party work,” says Ram Kishan Mehra, a fixture at Andheri station for almost two decades now. Like Mehra and Ram, most of the shoe-shine men in Mumbai are migrants from north India.
While the men plan to campaign in large numbers every Friday at select railway stations beginning with Churchgate next week, they will also form smaller teams that will disperse across the city’s local stations for a four-hourly party awareness drive daily.
“The issues raised by AAP, that of corruption and inflation, hits the poorest of the poor the hardest. We want our country to change for the better and sacrificing four hours of pay everyday is a small price for that,” says Daya Kishore, one of the union leaders and a shoe-shine man at Kandivli railway station.