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The Human Forklifts of Kolkata

 
 

Conveniently located near the Sealdah station in Central Kolkata, Kolay market is the largest wholesale market of the city catering to the daily needs of thousands of the city’s residents. Chock-a-block with buyers and sellers, the narrow lanes are always congested and slippery with rotting vegetables. The dark alleyways always smell of fresh and rotting seasonal greens, and the strong odor of spices and chili peppers makes those corridors almost unbearable to the casual passerby.

Moving in and out of this chaotic set up is a group of well-built men carrying impossibly huge loads of vegetables. They are migrant workers from Bihar, the neighboring state, and they are the human forklifts of Kolay market. Working as daily laborers, they get to work as soon as the trucks with bushels of vegetables arrive on the roads beside the market and bundle 80-100 kilograms (176 to 220 pounds) of vegetables on their turban-wrapped heads before carrying them to the wholesalers inside the market. Each laborer works 10 to 12 hours per day and earns about INR 300 to 500 ($5 to 8.50) for the grueling work.

These men are prone to degenerative diseases, with severe damage to their spinal cords and central nervous system from the years of herculean work. Most of them retire to their villages before they reach 40.

Kolay market remains open 24/7 and is one of the few places in Kolkata that does not shut down even when a strike paralyzes other parts of the city. The human forklifts of this market work on a “no work, no pay” basis.

Sugato Mukherjee is a photographer and writer based in Calcutta and his works have appeared in The Globe and MailAl JazeeraNational Geographic TravelerHarper Collins and Yale University Journal. His coffee table book on Ladakh has been published from Delhi in 2013. Some of his visuals and stories can be found at sugatomukherjee.com 

The Human Forklifts of Kolkata
Ramlakhan Yadav, a native of a village in North Bihar, is a veteran of almost 20 years in Kolay market. He earns around INR 500 for his 10 hour shift.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Human Forklifts of Kolkata
The flurry of activities begin when a truck arrives with bushels of vegetables on the congested road outside Kolay market, the largest wholesale market of Kolkata.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Human Forklifts of Kolkata
The human forklifts get to business as soon as the truckloads of fresh produce arrive at the market.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Human Forklifts of Kolkata
As soon as the bundles of vegetables are offloaded from the trucks, the team members heave the bundles, weighing 80 to 100 kilograms, onto the turban-wrapped heads of fellow porters
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Human Forklifts of Kolkata
Each team generally has eight to ten men, with a team leader who is in charge of the pack. The wholesaler pays the team leader, who divides the money among his members.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Human Forklifts of Kolkata
Migrants from Bihar villages start here very young. Most of them are afflicted with degenerative diseases by the time they are in their late 30s.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Human Forklifts of Kolkata
Suresh, who has worked here for eight years, says that he has to take a painkiller every day. He plans to work for another five years and then return to his village to work as a sharecropper.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Human Forklifts of Kolkata
Working for grueling shifts, day in and day out, sometimes necessitates a day off. But an off day means no pay for these workers.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Human Forklifts of Kolkata
Workers, tired out after a 10 to 12 hour shift, take a few hours of sleep, in whatever way they can.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Human Forklifts of Kolkata
The wholesalers wait for the goods to arrive inside the market.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Human Forklifts of Kolkata
Fresh supplies from the rural zones arrive here throughout the day. The market remains open even if the city comes to a standstill due to a strike.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Human Forklifts of Kolkata
Conveniently located near the Sealdah station, the market is linked with suburbs of Kolkata and remains open 24/7.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
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