The Last of the Victorians

Published: Dec 04, 2011, 10:59 IST | Dhamini Ratnam |

With the High Court's directive to the BMC to crack down on unlicensed city stables, the fate of the iconic horse carriage drivers hangs in the balance. Relieved animal lovers, residents and vehicle owners find hope in the court's anti-cruelty stand, but what will the 130-odd syces and their families do if their livelihood is snatched from them?

With the High Court's directive to the BMC to crack down on unlicensed city stables, the fate of the iconic horse carriage drivers hangs in the balance. Relieved animal lovers, residents and vehicle owners find hope in the court's anti-cruelty stand, but what will the 130-odd syces and their families do if their livelihood is snatched from them?

The road to the Pila House stable in Grant Road is dotted with greasy auto repair shops, a thrust of tempos, and sex workers standing jauntily on the pavement. A narrow pathway filled with mulch leads to the stable. The smell of horse dung and sweat hits you as soon as you enter, and lingers with you long after you've left.

There are close to 170 Victorias that ply in the city, including,
most famously Apollo Bunder and Marine Drive. A recent Bombay
High Court directive however ruled in favour of a PIL filed by an
animal rights group and found that these horse-drawn carriages
are a form of cruelty against the horses. Pics/Suresh KK

To the right runs a line of connected cement troughs, with horses tethered close by. The ground is littered with chaff and dung. To the left, an unmade carriage, gleaming in the afternoon sun, leads a line of Victorias. A 70 year-old driver-turned-maalishwala sits on a discarded Britzka, resting his back against the fading faux velvet seat.

A young boy, probably 13, bathes in his underwear, near a pile of discarded wooden beams, cigarette butts and old clothes. He has drawn water from the well located behind the carriages. His workmates snooze on makeshift beds, made up of wooden slats hung from the ceiling and padded with old clothes.

The horses, many with their faces inside the half-empty troughs, swish their tails to chase away incessant flies that sit on their trembling skin. Contrary to what you may expect, their necks are straight and their haunches, convex -- markers that as PETA's Director of Veterinary Affairs Dr Manilal Valliyate tells us, indicate a healthy horse.

By comparison, a very thin horse will have  concave (or hollowed out) haunches, a concave neck and its ribs and spine would stick out, earning it a body condition score of between 1.5 to 2.5 out of five, deeming it unfit for work.

"We do our best to take care of our horses. After all, our lives
depend on them," says Aslam Pathan, who rode a Victoria carriage
for 15 years and saved up money to buy Sultan, his horse
(seen here in the picture) last year. Pics/Bipin Kokate

Yet, if all goes according to plan, the 60-odd horses that reside in this stable, and an entire eco-system of workers -- from the ironsmiths, who make the carriages and horse shoes, to the maalishwalas employed for the upkeep of these horses, and their drivers and owners -- will soon be out of work.

On November 23, 2011, a division bench of the Bombay High Court bench comprising Chief Justice Mohit Shah and Justice RS Dalvi directed the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation to seize the horses that reside in unlicensed stables. The ruling was made in response to a Public Interest Litigation filed in August by the Animals and Bird Charitable Trust (ABCT), an animal rights group started by Litolier owner Ashok Mittal's wife, Neeru Mittal.

According to regulations laid down by the Municipal Corporation (Section 394 of the Mumbai Municipal Corporation Act) -- and followed till 1974, after which the civic body stopped issuing licences to stables -- not more than 100 horses should reside in a stable. The premises should be cleaned twice daily, and the horse dung should not be allowed to pass into the drain of the stable.

The rules also stated that hay, grass or straw should not be kept within the stable -- in fact nothing that encroached on or diminished the minimum space for the animals should be allowed. It also barred owners from keeping horses in any place other than a licensed stable.

However, although no stable has been issued a licence since 1974 (the Mahalaxmi Racecourse stable was the only one whose licence was renewed; it too, lapsed in 2009) nine stables and a number of small makeshift shed exist in areas across South Mumbai, unchecked and unregulated. Together, these house the 170 horses that pull the carriages that are a major tourist attraction at the Gateway of India and Marine Drive, among other hotspots. These horses are also employed in the city for wedding processions and joy rides.

An independent equine welfare assessment  was conducted by Dr Nilesh Dhamre in June 2010 on horses from Nariman Point, CST and Ambedkar Nagar, Cuffe Parade. "It found that a majority of horses in Mumbai were unfit for work," pointed out Valliyate. "Not only were the horses under-fed -- these animals need to be eating through most of the day,  at least 18 hours -- they were also dehydrated, and 67 per cent scored one in body condition score," he said.

A senior BMC official of the Health Department, who did not wish to be named said that the civic body has not conducted health checks on these stables. "Our role is to approach the court when we find rules are being flouted," said the Deputy Executive Health Officer. No health survey has been conducted on the people who also live and work in these stables.

Cruel treatment, not intentions
A horse report published by PETA in 2008 also makes a strong case for the banning of horse drawn carriages in the city -- a campaign that the animal rights organisation relaunched following the High Court directive that has rung the death knell for Victorias in the city.

The horse report offers a number of reasons for why carriages should be banned, including, most importantly, instances of cruelty against these animals by the owners. On November 15, a paper carried a report of a horse that collapsed while pulling a carriage with nine people near the Gateway of India the previous night. The horse was sent to the Bombay Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (BSPCA) stable to recover.

The horse's owner, Santosh Kumar Gupta, however has a different story to tell. "The horse was not carrying nine persons. Where is the space in the carriage for nine people to fit?" he says, sitting on a string cot inside the Pila House stable. Gupta owns three horses, which he keeps at a stable near St George's hospital.

"An activist said she'll pay for the recovery of my horse. She did not turn up and I paid nearly Rs 15,000 for the duration that my horse was at the hospital stable. I would take food for the horse every day," said Gupta, who claims he earns less than Rs 40,000 a month from his carriages.

Gupta, like other horse owners, earns money from the carriage after paying the driver a 30 per cent commission on the day's earnings. "On a day when business is good, we make close to Rs 1,000. After paying the commission, the rest of the money is spent in buying food for the horse and paying the maalishwala who takes care of the horses in the stables. What's left of it, I spend on my family." Gupta spends Rs 21,000 on his three horses every month.

Aslam Pathan, a Victoria driver who saved up enough money to buy his own horse, agrees with Kumar. "We do our best to take care of our horses. After all, our lives depend on them," says the father of four. Poor infrastructure, the lack of government or NGO support in terms of health check ups or subsidised care, for both, the horse drivers and their animals, and ignorance on how to care for the horses so that they are not led to the point of exhaustion, begs the question -- are the Victoria drivers the 'bad guys', or are they victims of an indifferent state and society?

Last Friday, a meeting was held between the BSPCA, the ABCT and the BMC Health Department officials to form a strategy to seize these horses. However, said the Deputy Executive Health Officer, BMC, "We will wait till the December 7 court hearing to decide on a course of action."

Concerned about the livelihood of the Victoria drivers, the court has set a date for another hearing on Wednesday, where a representative of the horse owners has been summoned, and the state has been asked to present a plan to rehabilitate the drivers.

Abdul Ghani, a horse owner who travels on his motorcycle to the Gateway every other evening to meet his Victoria carriage driver, says, "The trouble is, we are not organised (into a union)." As a result, rues Ghani, owners and drivers are worried about what the future holds out for them.

At the time of going to print, the drivers told this reporter that they had not been approached by any representative of the state, asking them what rehabilitation would be acceptable to them. However, they said that they received a 24-hour notice to clear the Pila House stable on December 1. "We feel cheated by the underhand way in which the authorities have dealt with us," says Gupta, who attended a meeting of horse owners and drivers last Thursday, where a lawyer was reportedly hired. 

 "We've been issued driving licences, but our stables are being taken away from us. A week ago, we're told about the court order, then within a few days we've been served eviction notices. Why is no one taking our point of view into account before making decisions about us?" Gupta asks.

The court order states, "... if the horses are taken out of Bombay, 117 persons will lose their source of livelihood and they will have to be compensated by the State. In view of the above, we call upon the State to indicate measures which it proposes to take when the horses are seized by the Municipal Corporation ( �) e.g enabling them to obtain loan from the nationalised banks for purchasing auto rickshaw as an alternative means of livelihood."

There is no mention of what will happen to the maalishwalas, the boys who bring in the food for the horses and the ironsmiths who make the carriages, all of whom will also be affected by the ban.

A fight for whose spirit?
"Horses are stated as being used as means of conveyance, but they're actually used for joy-rides for tourists. How can we have Victorias in this day and age," asks Mittal, whose trust filed the PIL. "Earlier, Victorias were a means of transportation.

Today, with the existence of so many fuel-run vehicles, what is the need for carriages? Using them for the pleasure of humans goes against the free spirit of the animal. Besides, these horses are mistreated -- their legs are tied to prevent them from running away, they're not given enough food, and their living conditions are terrible," says Varsha Rokade, the legal advisor of ABCT.

"We petitioned that the horses being utilised for pleasure be banned because they were being treated inhumanly, they lived in unhygienic conditions causing maggots infestations, and their stables were unauthorised," she adds.

The trust has offered 6.36 acres of land in Panvel, where the seized horses could be kept. Given that the court order states that the owners will not lose their "proprietary rights" over the horses, will this imply that the horse owners have to travel to Panvel to care for their horses? And assuming that all parties seem to agree on the fact that the owners have not been able to ensure the health of their horses till now, what is the guarantee that they will be able to do so in Panvel?

Pathan shook his head when asked whether this seemed plausible. "We already have loans to pay off for the horses we've bought," he claims. "It means additional travelling expenses, at a time of no income," he says.

Why are they called Victorias?
In 1882, horse-driven carriages came to Mumbai (then Bombay) and added to the transport services of the city. The drivers of these carriages could be identified with their red, fez caps and were nicknamed "chilli-chors" or fodder thieves.

The 'gharry' was a horse-driven carriage that formed part of Mumbai's road transport in the beginning of the 19th century. A modified version of it, called the 'Victoria', named after the British monarch of the time, Queen Victoria, was first seen on the city's roads in 1882.

In contrast, a Britzka was an open carriage with a hood that resembled a buggy. Horses also pulled carts, trams and 'shigrams' in the city. There are several names for horse drawn carriages, each differing in terms of design and the number of horses employed. For instance, there is a buggy, a coupe, a cariole, a cabriolet and a chaise. A brake is distinct from a britzka and a brougham. Then there's the Governess' cart, a Hackney carriage, a growler. Of course, we all know about the hearse. Source: Bombay Meri Jaan by Fiona Fernandez, published in 2004

Your guide to
Horse-drawn carriages around the world

>> Mumbai isn't the only city in the world where horse-drawn carriages ply. The Municipal Corporation of Delhi banned carriages in 2009.

>> In 2009, Rome too banned horse drawn buggies that would transport tourists to some of the city's most famous landmarks like the Colosseum in the city's historic centre. However, the ban was for weekdays, so that the horses wouldn't have to face motorised traffic. The drivers were given electrically-powered vintage cars to operate on weekdays.

>> In most European countries -- among them Paris, Prague and Belgian cities --horse carriages are meant for tourists now.

>> Disney's theme park in the US also has horse car lines, a throwback to the time when horse cars were a mode of industrial and private transportation.

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