Sajan Ram, 34, has six brushes. One for brown polish, one for black polish, one for drying brown shoes, one for drying black shoes and two spare ones. In addition, he owns a “quick shiner” for that extra gleam and, of course, the customary wooden stand that shoeshine boys are identified by. At every major railway station in the city, the shoeshine ritual costs an identical Rs 10.
Ram has been operating with his wooden stand for the past 15 years from the south end of Thane railway station’s Platform No 2, one of the 12 shoeshine workers catering to rushing train commuters seeking that final fine-tuning of their appearance before they reach work.
Like Ram, the men in this occupation are mostly from Bihar, many of them from the cobbler community. Ram says he gets nearly 40 customers a day on most days, enabling him to make Rs 300 to Rs 400. “On Sundays, however, we are lucky if we even make Rs 200,” says Ram Babu, another shoeshine worker who works from his fixed spot on Platform No 2 at Thane railway station.
Interestingly though, each of the shoeshine boys have to pay a fee of Rs 240 per month to the Railways for smooth operation.
Like everything else in Mumbai’s real estate, there are prime spots here as well. For example, those working on Platform No 2, which opens directly on to the main road outside, make more than those operating on Platform No 4 that has railway tracks on either sides. And the spots have been long decided — 37-year-old Satyender Rao says there is a tendering process, licences and spot allocation. “It was done once in 2000 and then in 2007. Now we hear the tendering is going to happen in 2017,” Rao says.
Central Railway Public Relations Officer (PRO) A K Jain confirms that the licences are issued to the shoeshine boys through a tendering process. “We then allot them railway platforms and spots. We have to ensure that they do not sit at spots where they may obstruct public movement,” Jain tells The Indian Express.
A lesser known fact is that the services of the shoeshine boys are routinely availed by personnel of the Government Railway Police, who have asked them to be their ‘eyes and ears’ on railway platforms, informants of anything suspicious ranging from unusual behaviour to unattended baggage.
Sometimes, however, this ends on a funny note.
Following instructions, Surendra Ram, who has been working as a shoeshine worker since 1996 at several railway stations, once alerted the GRP in Thane about a bag lying there for half an hour. The GRP reached, took the bag away and, upon checking its contents, found a chopper. “They congratulated me for having helped secure them. I felt quite happy,” Ram says.
But his happiness was shortlived. A coconut seller approached him a while later asking if he’d seen his bag.
“The coconut seller had to spend hours explaining to GRP that the chopper was only for coconuts. He cursed me for the ordeal.” Ram laughs.
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