Saturday, 17 December 2011

Victorias trot towards sunset with a slice of Mumbai’s history

Enjoying an evening ride in a kitschy horse-carriage along the city’s promenade will be a thing of the past, thanks to the efforts of animal rights activists who have been demanding a ban on such rides, citing animal cruelty.

The clip-clop of hooves along the Gateway of India or Marine Drive is an enduring symbol of the city’s history. Long romanticised in Hindi movies, Victorias are also a popular tourist attraction.

“Most of my customers are from the West Asia, who cannot resist the novelty of sitting in a decorated horse-pulled carriage,” says Ashok Kumar, who plies his carriage at Gateway of India and charges Rs500 for a short ride to the Radio Club and back.

And when he is not busy taking Arab tourists on joyrides, Kumar is approached by young couples looking for a quiet and romantic time. “Of course, they pay only half of what I get from the Arabs,” he says.

Though the 130-odd carriages may not generate big revenues for the city or the government, historians insist that efforts should be taken to preserve the city’s past. “Owners and drivers should be directed to work with animal welfare organisations. Together, they can draw up regulations for better treatment of the horses. And the civic authorities can suggest routes for carriages to operate upon,” says historian and researcher Sharada Dwivedi.

Another suggestion is plying the carriages through some of the old and historic parts of the city during non-rush hours.

Fight for survivalMeanwhile, 100-odd Victoria drivers are concerned about their livelihood. “We take good care of the horses because our livelihood depends on their health and well-being,” says Aslam Khan, who has been driving a Victoria for the last 15 years. And it is not just the owners and drivers who are staring at an uncertain future. If carriages are banned, other workers in the trade, including ironsmiths who make horseshoes and metal carriages, and stable hands, will be put out of work.

Villains or victims?When the government stopped issuing licences to stables in Mumbai in 1974, several unchecked and unregulated stables and make-shift sheds sprouted in South Mumbai. Together, these house 172 horses. And while it is the responsibility of the owners and drivers to take care of the animals, the unlettered men are largely ignorant of animal or even human rights.

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