Reining in the tongas: Covid-19 lockdown puts the tongas off Lucknow's road

Juggan Khan, a 70-year-old tonga driver in Old Lucknow, who spent five decades running single-horse drawn carriages to support his tourism-dependent livelihood is now in a dilemma. The pandemic necessitated lockdown has brought with it unforeseen hardships not only for Juggan but three dozen other tonga drivers in Lucknow, the City of Nawabs.

Khan used to earn Rs 600 a day before pandemic struck. Now, with all modes of public transport shut, he is struggling to make ends meet. “Before the lockdown, we used to earn Rs 600 a day taking tourists around Bara Imam Bara, Chhota Imam Bara, Rumi Darwaza, Picture gallery, Shahi Talaab and Ghanta Ghar. When film-makers came here to shoot, we earned extra,” says Khan, who has been running single-horse drawn carriages for five decades.

Who is not familiar with the good old sturdy tonga, with a canopy over the carriage and a pair of large wheels, once ruled the roads in Lucknow? They have featured in many films including Gulaabo Sitaabo, Gaddar, Mamata, Paalki and Mard.

The lockdown has put the tongas off the road and owners are finding it difficult to feed and maintain the horses. “Maintaining a horse means a monthly expenditure of Rs 6,000 to Rs 7,000. Feeding good-quality fodder costs Rs 200 every day. The horseshoe needs to be changed once in 10 days. This costs about Rs 800 a month. To hire the services of a barber for the horse once a month, one has to shell out Rs 300,” he says.

Fifty-year-old Kallu, whose family has been running tongas for three generations, hardly earns anything now. “Many horses died of starvation during lockdown. Many tonga and carriage owners abandoned their horses in the hope that they may be fed by somebody. I wish the Uttar Pradesh government helped us. There is no chance now to even rent our horses for a ‘baraat’. We have exhausted all our savings,” says Kallu.

A Class 6 dropout, Kallu, who has two tongas, visits Imam Bara every day to feed his five-old-horse Hema. His other horse, Miss Punjab, who is nine years old, is in his house in Daaliganj.

Khan, too, comes from Khadra to Imam Bara every morning to feed his horse Kajal. “My father, Nanhe Khan, told me that a horse should never be left hungry. Even if I don’t eat, I make sure that Kajal gets her fodder,” he says.

When Kajal fell ill in February, Khan took care of her and got her back on her feet again. With no earnings, the tonga drivers are facing a double crisis of survival — of themselves and their horses.

Even before the pandemic, the once ubiquitous tongas, which dominated the streets of Lucknow, had been facing competition from auto-rickshaws and battery-operated rickshaws. The number of tongas has steadily declined over the years but they continue to give tourists an unforgettable experience of the old-world charm of the city. Until seven years ago, Lucknow hosted Ekka Tonga races in the annual Lucknow Mahotsav.

The 39-year-old tradition was stopped reportedly because of animal cruelty issues. “If we had been given an opportunity to present our case, we could have assured the government and animal rights activists that we will run the race without using a whip,” he says.

The tonga race was an incentive for tonga wallahs and kept the tradition alive. “When Akhilesh Yadav was the chief minister, he recommended a manifold increase in prizes. He gave us Rs 20,000 each to maintain tongas. He got five tongas designed in Moradabad and presented them to tonga wallahs in Lucknow,” Khan says.

The tongas parked in front of Lucknow’s prime tourist attraction, Bara Imambara, added to its beauty. The tonga drivers recall the good old days when there was a tonga stand at the Charbagh railway station. “There was provision for drinking water as well. They stopped it two decades ago,” says Khan.

Now, one hardly finds tonga wallahs at Charbagh near the metro station. After the tourist places shut during lockdown, the carriages are queued up in a lane next to Naubat Khana.

“I am illiterate and don’t have any other means of livelihood. I appeal to the Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath to address our livelihood crisis,” says Khan.

The tonga drivers and others engaged in maintaining horses such as barbers and naalbands (a Persian and Urdu word for horseshoe fasteners) too have fallen on hard times.

Mohammed Arif, a resident of Thakurganj who is around 55 years, says, “For three generations, my family has been fitting horseshoe fasteners and cutting horse nails but it is difficult to find work now.”

Pappu, a barber, says he used to cycle for 90 minutes from Malihabad to Bara Imambara when the tonga wallahs called him. “It is difficult to make ends meet now,” says Pappu, who is in his fifties.

The tonga wallahs are not sure if the business will continue. Even if they survive the pandemic, the next generation is not keen to take up the reins. “While one of my sons runs a battery-operated rickshaw, the other is into zardozi embroidery business. Thankfully, my eight-year-old grandsons, Samad and Nihal, have assured me that they will take my tonga business forward,” says Khan.

Maneka Gandhi, a Bharatiya Janata Party leader and animal rights activist, said, “I am against tonga races because horses are whipped. My organisation, People for Animals, fed horses near Victoria Memorial in Kolkata during last year’s lockdown. Some owners abandoned their ailing horses.”

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