On the muggy afternoon of September 29, Munilal Ram sat with his shoeshine box near the entrance of Mankhurd train station in Mumbai. A young man walked up to Ram, dragging his feet. The cloth strap of his left slipper had given way and he wanted to know how much it would cost to have it stitched. “Twenty rupees,” Ram said. The man shook his head vigorously, and replied, “I only have Rs 10 on me.” After a few more failed attempts at haggling, he walked away, leaving behind an exasperated Ram.

“People think of this as lowly work, which has little value,” 49-year-old Ram said. “They don’t understand that we also need to pay our daily license fees.”

Ram was referring to the daily cut from his earnings that he and hundreds of shoeshine workers across Mumbai’s suburban train stations pay to the Indian railways.

For decades, shoeshine workers like him have been a staple feature of the stations on Mumbai’s intra-city train network. They are referred to as “shoeshine boys” but the term is something of a misnomer – most workers are older men in their forties and fifties, and have worked at their jobs for more than 20 or even 30 years. Besides, the workers do not merely shine shoes, but also repair torn or broken shoes and bags.

Munilal Ram is a shoeshine worker at Mumbai’s Mankhurd station. Workers, who also repair torn shoes and bags, pay a fee to cooperative societies, who procure licenses from the railways. Photo: Nolina Minj

The exchange at the platform and Ram’s exasperation offered a brief snapshot into the struggles that these workers undergo every day. They work long hours for low pay: at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, one of Mumbai’s busiest stations, workers earn between rupees Rs 200 and Rs 500 a day, after sitting at their shoeshine boxes for between ten and 12 hours. From this, they pay Rs 30 per day to the cooperative that oversees the issuing of licences and the welfare of workers. Out of that, Rs 18 goes toward licence fees, while the rest is used for the cooperative society’s expenses, such as for maintaining accounts.

The workers’ precarious livelihoods are under even greater threat now, owing to a change in licensing policy by the Central Railways for stations on the Central Line of Mumbai’s local railway network. (The city’s other main route is the Western Line.) Though only one of the several cooperative societies that represent workers is challenging this change in the Bombay High Court, which has been implemented at some stations, workers across the system fear that they will be removed from their jobs if it is implemented more widely.

“If implemented, the new policy will be the end of us,” said Sonu Kumar, a worker from the society that has filed the petition.

When I first began interviewing them, workers were confused about my presence. “There’s nothing to write about our work,” said Kameshwar Ram, who works at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. “It is plain drudgery. We do this because we live hand to mouth and have no other means to earn a living.”

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Workers told Scroll that Mumbai was the only city in India where shoeshine workers had official permission to work inside train stations. They recounted the history of how this system came to be. In the early 1960s, Jagjivan Ram, who was then the railway minister, paid a visit to the city. During the trip, Ram, who was from the Chamar community, encountered members of the community who sat outside stations, working as cobblers and shoe shiners. He decided to institute a system that would allow them to work inside the stations.

“He started the Ravidas Cooperative Producers Society and gave it the project of working at the railways,” said Bhushan Ram, a 50-year-old shoeshine worker, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym. “This is how shoeshine workers began sitting at Mumbai’s train stations.”

Shoeshine workers at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. Workers worry that a new policy that opens up licenses to a tender system will displace them, and leave them without a means of livelihood. Photo: Nolina Minj

Even today, most shoeshine workers in Mumbai’s train stations belong to the Chamar community, a Dalit community whose hereditary occupation was tanning leather. Most of the workers have roots in Bihar. “This work is largely done by SC/ST workers,” said Daya Kishore, coordinator of the Railway Shoeshine Federation and a shoeshine worker at Kandivali station, referring to members of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. “In so many years, I’ve never seen a Rajput or Brahmin person do this work. Other castes won’t do it because touching people’s feet – they think of it as lowly.”

The workers are not employees of an organisation, but holders of licences who pay a daily fee to use railway premises. The registration of workers and the processing of their payments is overseen by several cooperative societies, each of which manages this work for a cluster of a few stations. “After Ravidas, other cooperatives were formed and spread across the city,” said Bhushan. Across the Central Railways alone, ten cooperative societies oversee more than 200 workers.

A key objective laid out by a 1999 policy of the Central Railways for shoe-shine cooperatives was to “generate employment opportunities for the persons belonging to the lowest strata of society”. It added that in cooperatives, “preference should be given to those which compose substantially or fully of members of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes”. This was in keeping with the Article 46 of the Indian Constitution, which directs the state to promote the “economic interests of the weaker sections of the people, and, in particular, of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes”.

Further, according to the 1999 policy, societies were responsible for ensuring that the workers earned and retained a minimum wage as per the Minimum Wage Act. Lawyer Ghanshyam Thombare, who along with senior counsel Sanjay Singhvi is representing Bombay Shoe-shine Workers Cooperative Society in the Bombay High Court, noted that in practice, the societies have not been able to guarantee this minimum wage. This is because the railways have set low rates for the work – at present, the rate for a plain shoe polish is Rs 10 and the rate for a cream polish is Rs 15.

But, he added, the railways set low licence fees so that workers could afford payments to societies, and thus retain a sufficient portion of their income. “What they are currently paying to the railways is a reasonable amount, therefore they are able to earn a bare minimum amount to sustain their family,” Thombare said.

The first signs of the railways’ shifting attitude emerged in 2002, when the Railway Board issued a letter stating that shoeshine societies would have to bid for shoeshine licences for each station. Up till then, most licences were held by societies that had obtained them from the government many decades earlier.

At first, older societies feared that the new system would displace them from the stations for which they were responsible. But they were somewhat reassured in 2006, when, in continuation of this policy, the railways issued a circular that invited tenders for shoeshine contracts only for those stations in Mumbai where no cooperative societies were previously engaged. The circular noted that where societies had been working in stations for more than ten years, “the contract of the existing licence may be renewed subject to satisfactory performance and payment of dues” – that is, they would not have to participate in the tender system.

But by 2018, the railways appeared to have changed its mind. That year, the board issued a circular stating that tenders would be issued for contracts, which would be awarded to the highest bidder at all stations in Mumbai under the Central Railways. The circular stated that all existing contracts would be allowed to continue for a period of six months, after which they would be replaced by contracts issued through competitive bidding.

Other problems were also apparent in the policy laid out in the circular. For instance, unlike the earlier policy, it did not have a clause about workers being paid minimum wages. Thombare noted that if the competitive system was introduced, a large portion of workers’ incomes “will go towards the license fee and that will affect their income”.

The circular also made no mention of granting priority to workers from Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe groups. Instead, it just stated, without noting specific details, that “the basic objective of this policy is to generate employment opportunities to the weakest of weaker society”.

Workers after a meeting at Kurla station. In 2022, one cooperative society approached the Bombay High Court, asking it to strike down the new policy. Proceedings in the case are underway. Photo: Nolina Minj

Shivraj Manaspure, chief public relations officer at Central Railways, noted that the policy was aimed at giving “equal opportunity to all”. He said, “Earlier there was no tender system so certain societies did this work for years. But now, the policy will be uniform for all.”

However, activists argue that if the railways cancelled earlier contracts, and widely implemented a policy that did not favour Scheduled Castes and Tribes, hundreds of workers’ livelihoods would come under threat. “We are afraid that upper caste people will take over the administration of cooperatives and control or exploit the workers,” Kishore said. “If these other people get into this line of work, where will we go?”

In the book Scheduled Castes in the Indian Labour Market: Employment Discrimination and its Impact on Poverty, the authors noted, “Given the persistence of discrimination even in the competitive labour market, affirmative action to ensure fair share to an individual from discriminated groups is considered necessary.” The economist Sukhadeo Thorat, one of the authors, told Scroll that the railways’ move “will badly affect the Scheduled Caste community working in these jobs. In the name of competition and the free market, they’re undermining the welfare of SC/ST communities.”

Kishore added that the community did not want to cling to these jobs indefinitely. “We won’t let our children get into this line of work, we too want them to succeed and do good work,” he said. “So, in the future our participation in this will also decrease. But right now, this is the means for us to earn our living and survive. If this too is taken from us, then we won’t be able to do anything for our future generations.”

In response to the new policy, in 2022 the Bombay Shoe-shine Workers Cooperative Society approached the Bombay High Court for relief. Proceedings in the case are currently underway. The society was formed in 1975 and its workers operate from three busy local train stations on the Central Line – Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus, Masjid, and Sandhurst.

The petition argues that the 2018 tender system policy violates the “foundational object of earlier policies”, which intended to “generate employment for weaker section of the society substantially from SC and ST communities”. It also argues that the new policy is “unreasonable, arbitrary and without any study of the livelihood of shoeshine boys” and that it “doesn’t ensure minimum sustainable income for shoeshine boys but is intended for the financial benefit of the respondent” – that is, the railways.

Further, it notes that the policy will deprive workers of “their livelihood and stand as a threat to their right of life”. It describes the present societies as “welfare-oriented” and noted that they “may not be able to bid for high amounts”.

“Our work was earlier seen as a public service,” Kishore said. “But now it is seen as a business, as a means to earn money, and this is endangering our livelihoods.”

The cooperative societies are also anxious because the circular proposes that tenders for each station be renewed every three years. “We don’t want this,” said Bhushan. He noted that implementing such a radically new system would be unjust because in 2006, societies agreed to a clause in the new policy introduced then, under which they would be allowed to retain their contracts if they agreed to an increase of 6% in their licence fee every year.

That clause was introduced after shoeshine workers approached Yogendra Yadav, then an activist and academic, who would go on to become a politician. Yadav arranged for meetings between the workers and railway minister Lalu Prasad Yadav, as well as the railway board. After a negotiation, the railways agreed that older societies would not be subject to the tender system, if they committed to the annual hike in their licence fees.

Dr Manish Jha, a professor of social work in community organisation and development practice, argued on an email that the railways’ decision to implement a tender process was indicative of a “‘neoliberal governmentality’, where the government is trying to withdraw itself from managing the ‘space’ at the station”.

He noted that the move “demonstrates the corporate model of government which is ultimately being promoted at the cost of poor and marginalised shoeshine workers”.

In a paper, Jha and Ajeet Kumar, a professor of social work, argued that that competition and the introduction of free market forces do not necessarily benefit every sector in India. “With extensive poverty and the wide-ranging practice of social exclusion in India, the rationality of competition and the market’s domination has adverse implications for the informal sector workers,” the paper observed. “There is enough evidence to suggest that the market mechanism has not been an equitable, inclusive and level-playing field for different vulnerable communities.”

Earlier this year, the workers met Raosaheb Danve, the minister of state for railways, and asked him for help. They said that the minister had assured them that he would examine the matter, but that they had seen no progress after that. “Today’s government says it’s a government for the poor,” Bhushan said. “But you see our struggle, this is not our experience. From Churchgate to Virar and CST to Kalyan, nobody feels this way.”

Amit Bansode, chairman of the Railway Shoeshine Federation, said that workers had contemplated going on a hunger strike but that they worried for their incomes and the well-being of their families. None of the workers I spoke to had any savings – the little they did, had disappeared during the Covid-19 lockdown when the trains did not work.

“People in this job can at the most provide food for their families,” Bhushan said. “Sometimes in the monsoons, the work also stops, so people take loans.” Many workers said they had to frequently turn to moneylenders to make ends meet, since their earnings are never guaranteed and depended on the number of customers that they received each day.

Amit Bansode and Daya Kishore, chairman and coordinator of the Railway Shoeshine Federation. A letter written by Bansode on behalf of one society alleged “financial misconduct” by officers of the society. Photo: Nolina Minj

Workers of the Dhanak Boot Polish Kamgaar Sanstha, which oversees the stations between Churchgate and Mahalaxmi on the Western Line, and between Sion and Bhandup on the Central line, are also anxious because in September, the railways sought to remove those on the Western line from their places of work, citing unpaid dues. But in a letter to an assistant registrar of cooperative societies, Bansode alleged that there had been financial misconduct on the part of officials of the society. Several workers also told Scroll that they had paid fees to a former secretary of the society, but that the railways had nevertheless raised the problem of unpaid dues.

Meanwhile, over the years, work has also dwindled. “People don’t wear leather so much nowadays; they prefer materials like plastic or cloth,” said 54-year-old Rahul Kumar at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. “And in the monsoons our earnings become scantier.”

Sixty-year-old Surendar Ram, who has been working at Kurla station for 30 years said, “We can’t expect to survive with the earnings from this job. And now other people are giving us so much trouble, just to stop these meagre earnings.”

Another worker, who asked not to be identified, added, “Our children’s futures depend on us. Look at my hair it’s all grey! I’m 55 years old today. I’ve given my youth to this job. I don’t have any other skills. If the railways force us to leave, I’ll be on the streets.”

Meanwhile, as they fight daily battles for survival, workers rue the fact that earlier goals they held, such as converting the workers to government employees, today seem unimaginable.

Kishore recounted that in 2006, when he and others had met railway minister Lalu Prasad Yadav, they had raised this matter for discussion. In his time, Yadav had made luggage porters at Patna station railway employees and introduced reforms for porters across the country. But Yadav had said a similar change would not be possible for shoeshine workers since they only worked at Mumbai’s train stations. Since then, Kishore and Bansode said, they had not been able to raise the matter for discussion with authorities. “We have not been able to come together collectively and put up a united front to do this,” Kishore said. “Someone always wants to make money from the workers’ earnings.”

This reporting is made possible with support from Report for the World, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.