|Victorias in Mumbai. Picture by Gajanan Dudhalkar
Mumbai, July 9: The Victoria may soon need a memorial in Mumbai.
The horrific deaths of two horses in full public view last week has suddenly raised a clamour for a ban on the art deco-style French carriages, introduced in the city by the British in 1882 as cabs.
Silver-coloured and fitted with neon lights, the Victorias now ferry merrymakers and tourists along Marine Drive and around the old part of the city.
Haggard, malnourished and ill-treated, the horses that pull these carriages meant for three mostly end up carrying six to nine persons, making 10-15 trips of a 5km to 7km stretch.
Over the past year and a half, many of the overworked and underfed horses have collapsed and died on the streets but last week’s deaths were particularly tragic and witnessed by many.
On Sunday July 1, a horse died when a taxi rammed into it outside the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, formerly Victoria Terminus. The horse was not tied to a carriage at the time — the owner’s friend had borrowed it for a bareback ride around town.
On Wednesday, a horse tugging a carriage loaded with nine passengers instead of the stipulated three collapsed and died of exhaustion outside the Gateway of India.
Two days later, Bombay High Court accepted an intervention application by animal rights body Peta, which put its weight behind an ongoing public interest litigation (PIL) seeking a ban on the horse-drawn carriages.
The PIL, alleging cruelty towards the animals, was filed last September by the Mumbai-based Animals and Birds Charitable Trust (ABCT) and had so far been a cause limited to lunching ladies and committed animal lovers.
Bolstered by support from Peta, which counts Hollywood and Bollywood stars among its friends, the ban-Victoria cry has even reached the state legislature.
“The chief minister has been approached by many influential citizens to find a way to ban the Victorias. Many MLAs too are talking about the issue,” an aide to chief minister Prithviraj Chavan said.
“Apart from the cruelty issue, the matter also relates to finding alternative employment for the people involved in this business. We have to look into all things. The matter is sub judice; we’ll consider action only after the court gives its verdict.”
In an interim order, the court has asked Maharashtra’s lawmakers to find alternative sources of employment for the men who handle the horses.
There are 170 horses in Mumbai, including ponies. Of these, around 40 are used for rides on the beaches and gardens; the remaining 130 pull Victorias.
“A study by the ABCT last year showed that the horses are made to stand all night with their legs tied. We have submitted the study to the high court,” trust counsel Aspi Chenoy said.
Last year, the court had directed the civic body to send the horses to a 6.36-acre plot of open land provided by the trust at Panvel, about 40km from Mumbai, after the ABCT undertook to take care of the animals, and feed and transport them.
The court directed the deputy commissioner of the civic health department and officials of the trust and the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to work out the logistics for the shift. Both parties are still trying to figure out the logistics.
Municipal commissioner Sitaram Kunte said that of the 10 horse stables in Mumbai, nine are illegal.
“We last issued a licence for a stable in 1974. We keep issuing notices to horse owners who keep their animals in illegal stables. But under the Bombay Municipality Act, owners whose horses are seized for violations can redeem them after paying Rs 2,500,” he added.
Last month, when Peta held a demonstration at Azad Maidan demanding a ban on horse-drawn carriages, nearly 5,000 people turned up in support.
“The Municipal Corporation of Delhi made a landmark decision to ban tonga horses in the city in 2009 and recently scrapped a proposal to use ceremonial horse carriages for tourist rides. Mumbai needs to follow in the footsteps of Delhi, Paris, London, Toronto, Beijing and other cities and ban the use of horse-drawn carriages,” Chenoy said.
Is Calcutta listening?