Victorias: Giving dignity to a relic of the past

On reading the news about the courts declaring, ‘hack Victorias on the streets of Mumbai’, I had mixed feelings. I haven’t set out in any of these contraptions for years, decades even, but I found their presence adding a dash of colour to the city’s streets. True, it was obvious to even the casual observer that the horses were poor in health and the Victorias themselves  in rickety shape, but their presence was a bit comforting, as a kind of link with a more leisurely past.

Not everyone views them with the same sense of nostalgia, of course. Animal rights activists have long fought to get them banned, because the horses are kept in poor condition and the courts have agreed with that. A PIL filed by one group claimed that overwork, malnutrition and poor care were the main problems. According to some figures, there are 170 horses and 130 horse carriages in the city — not too many really, but they look like anachronisms in a city that is all about speed. Drivers often curse these carriages because they trot along Marine Drive and congested areas around the Gateway, which can be quite an inconvenience.

It is also a fact that they have lost the charm they once had. Only tourists, and that too fewer in number than before, hire them for a spin around the block that can cost around 300 rupees, not a small sum. Locals simply ignore them. Yet, the departure of these garishly decorated and lit tongas will be a loss.

Older Mumbai residents will recall that till the 1970s, one found Victorias outside some stations such as Marine Lines to ferry passengers to their destinations such as Crawford Market. Cabs were available, of course, but these were expensive and the tonga was a perfect means of localized, short distance transport. It could take several people and cost next to nothing. By and by the tonga disappeared but over the years, some remained, morphing into these glitzy Victorias. With proper management and some financial inputs, such as loans and grants, these could have become viable small businesses. But, in a city like Mumbai who has time for the past?

The poor Victoria owners somehow kept pulling along but were running out of not just money and income but also places to keep the horses. These are kept at all kinds of unhygienic and cramped quarters – stables is too grand a word – in crowded parts of the island city. I recall once meeting a horse owner somewhere in the heart of crowded old Mumbai – off Grant Road – who was giving his mare a wash on the open street. He then had to lead it back to a dingy building where the horse was given some oats. It didn’t look a particularly salubrious place for the animal, but it probably was the only place the owner could afford.

Thus, there is a genuine problem and in space constricted Mumbai, and with the streets clogged with traffic – to say nothing of pollution – the carriages look like an anachronism. Yet, with a proper plan of rehabilitation and care, surely a city like Mumbai can do with something quaint? In our race for the future, should we forget the past?

Such Victorias exist in many parts of the world. They are well appointed and adhere to safety and hygiene standards, as it should be. The horses are well fed, the carriages in top condition. The local government checks everything regularly. The same can be done here. The reason why horse owners here get away with poor upkeep is because no one regularly checks up on them or, if they do, are lax in enforcing the rules. One doesn’t have to spell out how rules are flouted in this city.

What will happen to these owners and horses once the year’s deadline passes? The court has said that both should be rehabilitated. The horses could go to one of the animal rights groups while the owners could perhaps get state help. How likely is it that such a thing will happen effectively? Do any of the groups have a place or the wherewithal to look after the horses? We hope the answer to that is yes.

With the demise of these Victorias, one more element of the city’s past will go away forever. Perhaps change is inevitable, but great societies handle change with subtlety and imagination. Progress is to be desired, but mindless progress for its own sake can be sterile. We are destroying many old neighbourhoods, with their sense of community and fellow feeling, and replacing them with soulless skyscrapers. Sure, living conditions will improve, but a vital part of the city’s fabric will be gone forever. The via media would be to provide good living conditions while at the same time maintaining some aesthetic sense of the past.

We still have a year, during which some ideas can emerge. Even if the Victorias cannot be saved, let there be some effort by which the horses and the owners are given a life of dignity. If society takes away their livelihood, it must do something to give them an alternative. Are our courts, government and animal rights activists listening?

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