May Day: “Life is not as sweet as candies we sell on trains,” Chennai’s visually challenged graduates look at bleak future with no job prospects

Kumar hawking in a train en route to Chennai Beach Junction | Photo by Shalini S

Scores of visually challenged men from Chennai are seen hopping trains and hawking, drawing the ire of both commuters and authorities. These visually challenged men are educated and have been compelled to do menial jobs. A TCN Ground Report peeks into their lives to understand their frustrations and hopes. The story is the third story in the TCN series on the eve of International Labour Day 2021. The first and second stories in the series can be read here and here.

Shalini S,

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Tamil Nadu: “Kadalai mittai, orange mittai, oru packet paththu oru packet paththu (Peanut candies, orange candies, rupees ten per packet, rupees ten per packet). This is how Sudalai Kumar, 32, a visually challenged person from Chennai, hawks on board a train. 

As the train makes a stop at Mambalam junction in Chennai, he swiftly moves from one compartment to the other sweeping his white cane from side to side. 

Another visually challenged person Aravind, 31, on the other hand, did not go to sales this month as most of his supplies went rancid. He was unable to sell in the empty compartments as the second wave of pandemic raged on. 

Sudalai Kumar and Aravind, both were born blind and sell candies in trains for a living. The duo has been friends since their graduation days at Pachaiyappa’s College in Chennai. 

Talking to, they express unhappiness as their academic qualification is in contrast with their hawking business.

Kumar shows visible anxiety about his financial independence and is ready to take up “any jobs at all”, whereas Aravind is still on a voyage to find a decent job for himself.  

Unlike Aravind, Kumar wasn’t keen on education. Soon after completing his undergraduate studies in 2013, Kumar worked several menial jobs before joining Aravind for sales in 2016. 

Kumar said he didn’t bother pursuing his studies and his parents too told him “one degree was more than enough to find a girl for marriage.” 

Aravind too started sales right after his under graduation (UG) to be independent of his family but did not give up his studies. He holds an M.Phil. and B.Ed. degree, and currently pursues M.Ed. in correspondence. He is also preparing for Tamil Nadu government exams to secure a “stable job.”

Aravind said that many of his seniors who are blind were selling wares in trains as they couldn’t find jobs in the formal sectors. 

“Due to my family conditions, I decided to join them. My father got remarried after my mother passed away during my UG. I stopped asking him for money as my chithi (stepmother) did not like it. I wanted to earn money at least to take care of my needs, so I got into sales,” sighs Aravind. 

“I attended interviews in private schools after completing B.Ed. for teaching positions. I didn’t get selected anywhere. I can tell it is because of my disability. But the schools are in the habit of rejecting people like me,” he adds.

A whopping number of 43 Visually Challenged (VC) graduates with B.A, B.Ed. or M.A, M.Ed. or M.Phil., B.Ed. from the Tamil Nadu districts of Chennai, Thiruvallar, Arakkonam and Chengalpattu sell wares in trains that run from Chennai Beach junction alone as per the data provided by Arulvizhigal, a Non-Profit Organization for the blind in Chennai. The organization provides small loans without interest for these sellers.

When asked if they tried getting a job elsewhere, most of the blind graduate sellers whom I interviewed were not aware of the opportunities available for them as their responses circled around finding “government jobs” and or at “call centres.” 

“We try for jobs in private sectors but we rarely get selected. It is easier for people with other physical disabilities to get a job in private sectors as they can see (have eyesight),” the graduate sellers say.

Therefore, they are compelled into getting into jobs like weaving chairs, making pickles and selling wares on trains and roadsides. They say that these jobs give them a sense of independence and dignity as they are self – employed.

Perils of selling on train
Talking about the nature of the hawking business, the blind graduates said they sell different types of ware depending upon the season. “Inji murappa (Ginger sweet) will not run now as it is summer,” they said. 

They buy these products on an everyday basis from blind wholesalers who have their shops beside railway stations for the blind hawkers to commute easily. 

However, the hawking business is not as easy as it sounds. The blind hawkers complain of inaccessible infrastructure and occasional action was taken against them by railway personnel. 

They said that many junctions do not have announcement facilities and that the tactile pavements are not embossed enough to detect it as a warning surface.

“I might fall into the track without my cane,” Aravind said with a light laugh. They suffer injuries while boarding trains and endure abuses from the passengers if they accidentally bump into them or get on to the ladies compartment.

The Head Constable of Railway Protection Force (RPF), Mambalam station in Chennai who wished not want to be named said, “Hawking in trains is unauthorized. We excuse blind people under humanitarian grounds. But when a passenger makes a complaint against them, we have to take action as it is the law.”

Visually challenged Padmanabhan, 52, Vice-President of Arulvizhigal, said, “We cannot complain about anything as they are unauthorized hawkers and do not carry a ticket.” 

Blind people only have a concession of 75% in fares for a single journey and cannot ride free on a train. 

He recalls an accident that happened in December 2019, where Martin, 65, a hawker and adventitiously blind, fell in between two compartments and broke his spine in Pallavaram Junction, Chennai while boarding a train. They couldn’t claim any ex gratia relief from the Tamil Nadu government as Martin didn’t carry a passenger’s ticket. “Many accidents and fatalities go unaccounted for because of this reason,” Padmanabhan added. 

Tight race amid the pandemic
Visually challenged Bala Sundaram, 48, a B.A, B.Ed. the graduate said it’s a double whammy on his profit in present times because of the pandemic and the increasing number of visually challenged youngsters swarming to sell in trains, making the business a tight race for him. 

Bala Sundaram started hawking in trains in 2010, soon after his PCO (Public Calling Office) business shut down with the advent of mobile phones.

“Housewives who are blind join their husbands in sales for extra earnings. We can see a lot of blind couples selling on trains. It makes the business even more pushy,” said Anita Srinath, Chennai based social worker and counsellor, who has worked for the welfare of the blind community for more than 30 years.

Visually challenged Amini Biwi, 42, who hawks with her husband Noor Mohammad, 45, B.Ed. graduate, said, “We got help from NGOs like Arulvizhigal in lockdown. They give us rice and other supplies.” 

Biwi believes that she lost her sight as she was born during the solar eclipse.

Another visually challenged person Varadarajan, 28, said that he is unable to pursue his second year in UG as the classes went digital and started hawking as a part-time job in 2016. 

“We used to make around 800 rupees a day if we get on 4 to 5 trains before the pandemic. Even if we get on 40 trains now, we can make only 200 or so,” says Aravind.

With the hope of securing a job in a government-aided school, he remembers participating in a protest conducted by the College Students and Graduates Association of the Blind in Chennai, in February this year, urging the Tamil Nadu government to fill up the reserved vacancies in educational sectors.

Whereas, Kumar, the B.A graduate’s voice now coarse from hawking tells me casually standing under the scorching sun in Kodambakkam Junction, Chennai, “I am ready to take up any job that fetches me money, sister.” He then rushes to board a train to Chengalpattu.