While Twitter was abuzz with rumours of a border conflict in North Sikkim, more than 2,000 youths queued up Wednesday for a recruitment rally of Indian Army to enroll porters ‘for labour work in East Sikkim’. Some of the aspirants who gathered at Ganju Lama Dwar, Gangtok said they have learned about the recent Indo-China border tensions in social media and consider the recruitment as an opportunity to be in the frontline and help the country’s cause in whatever way possible.

“I have never been engaged in the frontline. I want to help our soldiers, work for Indian Army. The times are not right, and I can do anything that is desired of me in the interest of our country,” said 23-year-old Rabi Chetri, a college graduate who was working as a waiter at a hotel in Gangtok.

The Coronavirus lockdown has been tough for everyone, and the tourism and hospitality industry in Sikkim has been hammered hard with no business for nearly four months. The Indian Army job notification for 600 vacancies attracted many locals who had been working at pubs, hotels and restaurants before the lockdown, or operating taxis during the peak tourist season. Some had successfully secured a master’s degree in Hotel Management outside the state and returned home looking for opportunities.

The notification mentioned that those physically fit and in the 18-40 age group would be eligible to join as porters for a contract period of 179 days and entitled to a monthly salary of approximately Rs 20,000 along with compensatory wages. Terming it a ‘routine process’ in an operational area, an army official at the site said that the global pandemic had slowed many recruiting efforts and cancellation of local events.

“I came across this notification at Rangpo Checkpost and wanted to apply. I have previously worked as a porter for Indian Army, and I wish they recruit us permanently. I am twelfth pass with an ITI certificate. It is a normal recruitment process and has nothing to do with border tension. They keep hiring civilian porters on a seasonal basis,” said 27-year-old Om Prakash Rawat who lined up at the congested road with other job aspirants wearing masks and face covers.

Indian Army veterans, Colonel Dilip Kumar Borah and Colonel DN Bhutia expressed their appreciation for the porters and their service to the military for many decades.

“Porters have been an integral part of the army along with mules in high altitude terrain. They carry rations, kerosene, water, ammunition to our forward posts. These porters are normally residents of the border villages and are very tough and hard working. Many of them are employed along with their local ponies when army mules are not available,” said retired Col Borah, while also recalling the contribution of porters during Kargil operation.

“I have used their service in Arunachal, Kupawara sector of Jammu & Kashmir and during Operation Vijay in Dras. I have the greatest regard for them and for their work in Machhal sector, Kupawara and Dras,” said Col Borah, then Commanding Officer of 16 GRENADIERS, a battalion of about 900 soldiers deployed in the icy heights of Dras in Jammu and Kashmir.

“Most of the porters work during the non-snow season. There is a system of stocking the forward posts for 90-180 days, which are likely to be cut off due to snow. Porters are mainly used for this purpose. However, few local porters stay with the troops during winter months, mostly to carry freshwater, rations and vegetables which are heli-dropped or landed in forward areas. The help they provide cannot be explained in words. In hot border actions, they ferry ammunition to the forward troops,” Col Dilip Borah explained.

The Indian Army has a mix of mules, local ponies and yaks to cater to the logistical needs of the troops in forward areas - the area of responsibility (AOR) could be higher than 14,000 feet. As there are not enough mules to cater to all locations, the requirements are met through porters. In areas where local porters are not available, they are recruited from down below.

“The role of porters in the army will never diminish. Foot soldiers occupying the rugged mountain terrain of India-China and Indo-Pak borders are surviving due to the constant logistic supply of arms, ammunition and rations, Fuel Oil Lubricants by this chain of porters,” said retired Col DN Bhutia who is currently overseeing the Himalayan Centre for Adventure and Eco-Tourism (IHCAE) quarantine facility in Chemchey village of South Sikkim.

“The point where four-wheelers stop functioning, the porters come in,” Col Bhutia remarked.