Saturday, September 19, 2009

"Let me carry that for you"

I used to think that Sherpas were only there to help mountaineering expeditions. I used to think that in Garhwal, a district that prided itself on literacy, all young boys would be going to school. And I used to hope that things don’t change too much in the tourist-friendly Himalayas.

We were walking to our hotel in Gangotri, getting ready to check out. Just as we reached the hotel, I felt a tap at my knee. A small boy asked, “Kuch samaan utanekho hai Kya?”. (“Do you have anything that needs carrying?”)

All across this part of the Himalayas, Sherpa porters can be seen. They are men who carry a cord of rope with a leather strap in the middle with them wherever they go. The strap goes over their forehead as they bear heavy loads and shuffle along slowly. They can be seen lounging in clusters while they wait for jobs. Short, thin muscular men, wearing Nepali caps and smoking beedis, their easy smiles revealing rotting teeth.

Sometimes, it seems that the reason to travel is not to gaze at pretty snow-clad mountains but to observe the things that aren’t mentioned much.

I saw these human porters carrying everything on their backs. Sets of bricks, bags of cement, boxes of merchandise and worst of all, red cooking gas cylinders. (Those cylinders are so heavy that even moving them a few inches is difficult.) Apparently the going rate for one load was Rs 30 (US $0.60).

And in Yamunotri, these Sherpa porters carry visitors in a basket strapped to their backs for a distance of 6 kilometers uphill – a task that takes 2 to 3 hours for which they earn Rs 200 (US$4.00). These porters weren't doing too well.

And now here was a little boy, definitely not yet ten years old, who was offering to carry my bags. He knew when the check out time at the hotel was, and had showed up right outside the reception area. Instinctively, I said no. We had just a small day pack with one change of clothes and 2 bottles of water. More important, how could I possibly let a boy who was half my height carry my bag for me?

I am always looking for simple explanations, but I could find none for why these Sherpa porters existed at all. Why have humans lugging loads when big lorries (trucks) and smaller tempos and bicycles are available for transporting goods? And in looking for pat answers, I guessed the only role models that the boy had must be porters themselves.

That boy lingered in my thoughts for a long time. He looked to be eight years old. He should have been in school. I felt bad about denying him some quick money. Perhaps I shouldn’t have said no so hastily. But then, I realized that I would be encouraging him. If I gave him money today, he would be back tomorrow to ask another visitor. What was easy money when you were little would soon become a way of life.

Much as I would love for things to remain the same, I hope the Sherpa porters find some other line of work. And I hope that truant boys start going back to school and don’t ever aspire to grow up to become Sherpa porters.


  1. Jagdish Bhagwati the economist, spent some time thinking about the issue. If we make child employment illegal it would make things worse - thats the conclusion of he reached, if I remember right.

    The alternative that he goes to school simply doenst exist in most places. In most places schools provide nothing and is a waste of time. So next time some kid wants to carry your bags, pay him double. Thats the least of all evil choices available in this terrible situation, I think.

    These types of analyses are really hard to undertake analytically and heart wrenching to assimilate. But the marginal impact of your action on convincing the kid to go to school is zero. The marginal impact of a little bit more cash is higher. So thats my theory anyway.

  2. @Arvind,

    I agree that the marginal impact of my convincing anyone to go to school would be zero.

    But rather than pay the kid double, perhaps I could give something to the overall betterment of schools/education, hoping for a trickle down. Very weak, I know, but I still can't come to terms with encouraging kids by paying them.