There is a very peculiar structure that will come to the mind of those who know Shimla intimately, when one says the phrase “Load-Rester”. A small cube barrier, usually white in colour, along one of the many winding roads in Shimla. The image of the barrier is usually accompanied by a rant of goons, unloading their loads on the ‘Load Rester’, taking a small break between their jobs.
Thousands of porters, brought in by the British when they turned Shimla into the summer capital of India, can be seen circling these barriers, maintaining the city’s supply chain. But that was then. Now, automated transport, and more recently the COVID-19 pandemic, are driving delivery workers out of business, and structures like these are quickly turning into abandoned British artifacts.
“Things have changed a lot in Shimla. Now people have a lot of money. They own big cars. Earlier tourists would arrive here on shuttle buses or on Kalka Shimla game trains. Now, they come with their own cars and drive directly to their hotels. Same The thing with business too. We don’t earn as much as we used to,” feels 66-year-old worker Siwa Ram.
He claims that many fools have returned to their villages and either set up small businesses or switched to farming. He says the next generation is not interested in working as friends. It’s a decision that may have been spurred by the hack and subsequent restrictions imposed due to Covid-19.
Those who did not leave, including people like 61-year-old Shyam Lal, a third-generation communicator, reject the local municipality’s decision to dismantle the remaining loading barriers.
“We cannot put heavy loads, goods, and items anywhere on the road, where there are chances of the goods being broken or damaged. Now we are forced to walk long distances, with heavy goods strapped on our backs, without taking a break,” says adult Mohammed Altaf. She is 52 years old.
The companions of Shimla were said to carry the entire economy of the city on their back, so they were considered important to the local economy. Some locals, such as Narinder Kataria, the former mayor of Shimla, who has lived here since the 1940s, still feel fools are indispensable. In certain parts of Shimla, where traffic is prohibited, a strong force of 12,000 to 14,000 security guards becomes the only means of transporting goods.
“Coolies are the lifeblood of Shimla. They cannot be replaced by another style of cargo transportation system. This is because not all homes and localities are connected by roads, or even a good cart cannot reach near all homes, log cabins or apartments”.
Among the things that are starting to disappear with the porters are facilities that the municipality used to offer them, such as shelters, hospitals and schools, says Prakash Lohomi, a veteran journalist based in Shimla.
“The Shimla Municipal Corporation, one of the oldest urban civic bodies in the country, is abdicating its responsibilities to support guards. There were “diras” – small shelters for the guards – in almost every district. Earlier the municipality used to have facilities like hospitals, schools, transportation service, firefighters, water supply etc., all this is now going on,” says Lohmi.
A large number of Shimla’s companions are migrant workers from Kashmir, fondly referred to as the Khans. Some of them feel that against all odds, Shimla is still a better place to make a living than Kashmir.
“Kashmir used to be paradise but militancy and dynastic politics of two families totally spoiled it for us. There are no jobs there. A small plot of land cannot feed a family in Kashmir. Shimla climate suits us well. Tourist seasons and local businesses support us. This is our only livelihood,” that’s what Said Hamid, 51, who has been working here as an assistant worker since he was 29. He also has fond memories of his late father who also worked here as a porter.
As cities become smart cities and tourists get richer, occupying thousands like Hamid becomes untenable. Perhaps in a few years all the fools in Shimla will be gone. But for those who have grown up with the city, Load Resters will be a reminder of these one-off mobile charging machines.