Around four kilometres from the border of Pakistan, Shamsher Singh is at work in his brother’s garage, going through his tools. He has been working here as a mechanic for the past three years, but not out of choice.

Shamsher, 35, is a third-generation porter who once worked at the Attari-Wagah border between India and Pakistan. His family belong to the Prajapati community, listed as Other Backward Class (OBC) in the state.

At this border of Punjab with Pakistan, hundreds of trucks carrying cement, gypsum and dry fruits would once arrive into India every day. Trucks carrying tomatoes, ginger, garlic, soybean extract and cotton yarn among other goods, would similarly cross over to Pakistan.

Shamsher was one of almost 1,500 porters whose job was “to unload and load these goods onto trucks for their onward journey at the border crossing.” There are no factories or industries in the area; landless residents of villages located within a 20 km radius of the Attari-Wagah border rely heavily on cross-border trade for their livelihood.

PHOTO • Sanskriti Talwar

Shamsher was a porter at the Attari-Wagah border between India and Pakistan. But for the last three years, he has been working at his brother’s garage

A lot changed in 2019 when 40 Indian security personnel were killed in Pulwama in a terrorist attack that New Delhi blamed on Islamabad. Following this, India withdrew the Most Favoured Nation (MFN) trade status granted to Pakistan, and imposed a 200 per cent customs duty on imports. Pakistan retaliated with trade restrictions after India’s abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir.

Porters living in nearby border villages, and over 9,000 families in Amritsar district were badly hit, says this  2020 study by the Bureau of Research on Industry and Economic Fundamentals (BRIEF) .

Jobs in Amritsar city have the added expense of a 30-kilometre trip on the local bus – the journeys cost almost Rs. 100. Labour work pays around Rs. 300, so Shamsher says, “what’s the point in bringing home 200 rupees a day?”

Hundreds of kilometres from Delhi where diplomatic decisions get made, the porters feel the government is not listening, but having a member of Parliament from the ruling party will help amplify their voice. Further, an MP would push for reopening the border which would restore their jobs.

PHOTO • Sanskriti Talwar
PHOTO • Sanskriti Talwar

Left : National flags of India and Pakistan at the Attari-Wagah border. Right: At the Attari Integrated Check Post, trucks carrying various goods would arrive in India every day from Pakistan and goods from India similarly crossed into Pakistan. But trade relations between the neighbouring countries broke down after the Pulwama incident of 2019 and the porters were badly hit

Now, work is available at the border seasonally, only when trucks from Afghanistan arrive with crops. Shamsher says they pass the work on to older porters for whom finding casual labour work is more difficult.

Porters here understand the gesture of shutting the border was to retaliate. “ Par jeda ethe 1,500 bande auna da de chuley thande karan lage sau baari sochana chahida [But they should also consider how they have caused the cooking fires of many families here to go cold],” says Shamsher.

For five years, the porters have been petitioning the authorities, but to no avail.  “There isn’t any ruling government at both state and centre who we haven’t approached with our mang patra [memorandum] to reopen the border in the last five years,” he adds.

Sucha Singh, a Dalit porter from Kaunke village says that “the sitting MP from Amritsar, Gurjeet Singh Aujla from the Congress party, has often spoken in Parliament to the Modi government about reopening the border for the livelihood of the residents. However, the government did not act on it because his party is not in power at the centre.”

PHOTO • Sanskriti Talwar
PHOTO • Sanskriti Talwar

Left: Sucha Singh, a porter from Kaunke, a village near the border, now works as a mason with his son. Right: Harjeet Singh and his neighbour Sandeep Singh were both porters. Harjeet now works at an orchard and Sandeep is a daily wage labourer. They are repairing the roof of Harjeet's house in Attari

PHOTO • Sanskriti Talwar
PHOTO • Sanskriti Talwar

Left: Baljit (standing) and his elder brother Sanjit Singh (seated), are residents of  Roranwala. Baljit lost his job as a porter at the border. Right: In their family of seven, the only stable source of income is the 1,500 rupees widow pension that their mother Manjit Kaur received every month

After losing his work as a porter, the 55-year-old Dalit Mazhabi Sikh has been working as a mason with his son, earning around Rs.300 rupees a day.

In the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections 2024, the overwhelming consensus was a curious one. Shamsher explains: “We wanted to press NOTA for this election, but our livelihoods [as porters] depend entirely on the central government. We have no desire to vote for the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party], but it is a necessity.”

Election results declared on June 4, 2024 confirmed that Congress candidate Gurjeet Singh Aujla retained his seat. Whether he will have an influence on border politics is to be seen.
Sanskriti Talwar

Sanskriti Talwar is an independent journalist based in New Delhi, and a PARI MMF Fellow for 2023.

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Editor : Priti David

Priti David is the Executive Editor of PARI. She writes on forests, Adivasis and livelihoods. Priti also leads the Education section of PARI and works with schools and colleges to bring rural issues into the classroom and curriculum.

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Editor : Sarbajaya Bhattacharya

Sarbajaya Bhattacharya is a Senior Assistant Editor at PARI. She is an experienced Bangla translator. Based in Kolkata, she is interested in the history of the city and travel literature.

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