The Victorias are back in Mumbai and in a spanking new avatar. In a heart-warming exercise, about 40 Victoria-operators left jobless since the horse-drawn carriages were pulled off Mumbai’s roads in 2017, even suffered acute penury throughout the 2020 lockdown, found a lease of life in the e-Victoria venture initiated by UBO Ridez CEO Ketan Kadam.
“Mere teen ghode, Sultan, Maharaja aur Arbaaz, ki bohut yaad aati hai,” says rider Irfan Desai who would operate his horse-drawn ‘Victoria’ at Nariman Point and Marine Drive earlier. After the ban, he “sold Arbaaz to a friend while the other two horses were confiscated and sent to the Animal Hospital at Parel.”
To support his wife, two sons and a daughter, Irfan started selling vada pav after the ban, near his home in an SRA project at Nariman Point. The lockdown was a difficult phase for most Victoria riders who, already hit by the law, were deprived of their basic daily subsistence too. Irfan’s is a case in point.
“Tab toh, poore saal kuch bhi kaam nahin mila. Ghar par hi baith ke rehte the aur wahi khate jo kuch bhale log khana baantte the,” he recalls with moist eyes. Now, in the New Year, when he heard of the e-Victorias, he went to look for them and found a couple plying about during a trial. Inquiries led him to the offices of UBO Ridez, where he was offered a job. Life has now begun looking up for Irfan; and, for friends Yusuf and Aziz Khan who too have begun partaking in the trial runs of the e-Victoria along Marine Drive and Horniman Circle.
So, when Bareilly-based friends and business partners Sanjay Jhawar and Tushar Goel visited Mumbai for work on a swift one-day trip, they made it a point to go on an e-Victoria ride just before they caught their flight back home.
While, for Tushar, it was his first visit to India’s financial capital, for Sanjay it was his second. “This is the first time we sat in the e-Victoria and simply loved it. After sitting in horse-drawn carriages in Kolkata earlier, this was a different experience,” says Sanjay as he alights excitedly after a ‘short ride’ on Marine Drive. “On a horse-drawn carriage, one keeps feeling bad for the animal. Here, there’s nothing like that and there are no emissions too, the carriage being powered by a battery,” says Tushar, while excitedly relating his experience to his family on a video call after the ride.
For now, the guests availing the rides are those who have either seen the electric carriages on the road or heard about it from word of mouth. So, Mumbai-based Smita Salunke made a trip at night to Nariman Point with family to partake in the electric carriage ride after hearing about it “from a friend.”
“I had sat in the original Victoria twelve years ago at the same spot at Marine Drive. It was a ride down memory lane for me. I just had to experience it,” says Smita. Sister Seeble Sonawane, visiting the family from Nashik, also joined her with son Sanay and daughter Shyna to experience the e-Victoria ride. “The children are really looking forward to it. They’re very excited to sit on the carriage,” says Seeble as they jostled to get in place for the ride.
For the Andheri-based Nevis family, the experience was similar to horse-drawn carriage except that “there were no horses and no guilt,” says Joshua Nevis. “And that’s the best part about it,” offers wife Victoria Nevis who joined in the ride with their one-year-old daughter Grace and brother Mark Khayi, visiting from Manipur.
Joshua, on his part, had taken the traditional horse-drawn carriage ride ten years ago at Gateway of India. “This time, my sister told me about the new carriages and I came down with family, particularly Grace, to experience it.” Grace, on her part, was left spellbound.
Aziz Khan was a teenager when he started riding the horse-drawn Victorias. He personally owned three horses — Badal, Shahenshah and Mastan — and rode the carriage for almost 35 years. After the High Court order banning horse-drawn carriages, two of Aziz’s horses were taken away by the authorities.
For over two years after that, Aziz would arrange horse rides for children near Nariman Point. “At one point, I also drove a taxi. But then, in the lockdown with no options available, I even worked as a kadhia (mason) labourer,” recalls Aziz now happy with his new job.
“It will help me support my family of wife, two sons and two daughters,” he says before turning to answer queries on the e-Victoria ride from passing vehicle owners at Marine Drive.
For Dongri resident and 45-year-old horse-operator Yusuf Chordwala, riding the Victoria comes naturally. “I would ride the old Victoria at Gateway of India. My father and grandfather rode horses and carriages all their lives. I did it for almost 25 years before the Victorias, owned by my uncle, were sold off along with two other horses after the ban,” he said.
On his new role as the driver of the ‘modified’ Victoria, he says, “It’s so relieving to get work, especially after the lockdown when it was very bad as I had no work at all.”
Till date, in the first phase, 12 electric carriages have been rolled out on the streets of Mumbai, says Ketan Kadam adding, “The electric carriages do not cause environmental pollution and cruelty to animals while providing similar experience as traditional Victoria carriages.”
Now, in the process of “setting up a manufacturing unit,” Kadam says, “I want to ensure the operation generates revenue for the state and employment opportunities too. In the first year, we aim to produce 100 carriages that would hit the road in Mumbai, other cities in Maharashtra and outside the state too.”
With the introduction of Victoria 2.0, several carriage drivers have come forward to join the new fleet. “Of the 250-odd drivers and helpers rendered jobless in 2017, a few passed away or left Mumbai for their native towns. In the first phase, about 40 such men will be rehabilitated to be followed by more,” says Kadam.