BANGALORE, India—Half an hour out of Bangalore on the Kochuveli express train from Bangalore to Kerala, a young boy’s rustic folk voice filled the compartment with a popular Bollywood song, “pardesi pardesi jana nahi (O stranger don’t go leaving me).”
An age-old style, a modern setting and song.
He played his white stone slates as he sang. Walking with steady ease on the fast-moving train, he extended his hand to passengers for alms.
The boy was reluctant to give his name; we’ll call him Ajith. Ajith’s infant siblings and mother were not far off—one of many families in India turning to the crowded, under-regulated railways to make a living.
“These folk music performers are not new to India,” said M. D. Muthukumaraswamy, director of the National Folklore Support Center in Chennai, India. “For ages they have been roaming like this and performing. The new phenomenon here is the train.”
According to Muthukumaraswamy, most of these seminomadic families live on the outskirts of big cities and make their living performing on streets, trains, and buses. The whole family travels together and sometimes families also travel in groups.
Many of them come from traditional seminomadic folk music communities, and have taken to trains along with vendors of multifarious wares, because it’s easy earning.
India’s Forgotten Entrepreneurs
Amit Chandra, national coordinator of the Jeevika: Law, Liberty & Livelihood campaign at the Center for Civil Society, New Delhi, said the increase in railway vendors and performers is an indication that India’s national growth model is not inclusive.
“India reformed its market to corporations as part of its liberalization policy in 1991, but it did not reform its market to its own little entrepreneurs like street and railway vendors whose livelihood is still not recognized.”
Indian Railways, a government-run enterprise, is one of the largest railway networks in the world, transporting about 25 million passengers daily.
It traverses the length and breadth of urban and rural India, making it difficult to monitor passengers without tickets. It is a fertile ground for vendors, beggars, and the unemployed seeking to cultivate a livelihood.
For ages they have been roaming like this and performing. The new phenomenon here is the train.
—M. D. Muthukumaraswamy, director, National Folklore Support Center in Chennai, India
Just before Ajith’s family appeared in the compartment, two beggars had passed through. Some passengers had deposited one- and two-rupee coins in their hands.
Ajith, however, earned much more attention with his Bollywood renditions. His style is common among the railway performers who’ve turned from folk songs to Bollywood hits.
“We also need to understand under what circumstances they leave their homes and take to such livelihood,” Chandra said, speaking of the poverty and lack of social security in the nation.
At the rear end of the compartment, near the restrooms, sat Ajith’s family—a teenaged girl, probably his sister, and his mother with two toddlers.
Ajith roamed the train, intermittently returning to deposit money with his sister who kept counting the coins often. The two toddlers played with a small comb while Ajith disappeared into the adjoining compartment and the train moved past urban Bangalore.
Ajith’s language indicated that he is from Rajasthan State. His family was dressed in good clothes and the mother carried a bag with biscuits and milk for the toddlers, whom she tenderly caressed.
An hour later, when the train halted at a small station, Ajith’s family exited onto the empty platform while he remained on board.
Another hour passed and it started to turn dark. While passengers sat reading newspapers, chatting, and eating, another vendor came by selling toys, stationary, books, and maps.
He walked through the compartment and kept a few books on the seats of passengers who showed an interest. His toys caught the attention of the children, and within half an hour, he easily sold a few toys and books. He swept the rest into a bag as a ticket checker came along and in no time disappeared in the crowded train.
Legitimizing Railway Vendors
The National Association of Street Vendors of India hopes to persuade the Indian government to include railway vendors in the proposed Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vendors Bill.
“Once the railway vendors get included in this law, they will get a registration certificate and their livelihood will be recognized as a livelihood option,” said the association’s program manager, Vinod Simon.
He would differentiate vending from begging, with begging remaining illegal, but vending gaining legitimacy in the future.
“Only 2-3 percent of the 10 million vendors in India have legitimate vending status,” Simon said. He believes licensing could help curb thefts and other criminal activities. Criminals now operating under the guise of vending would be easier to catch, as only registered vendors would be allowed inside the trains.
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