Their distinctive clip-clop sound and the graceful turn of their wheels against a backdrop of rainswept, British-built south Mumbai have contributed to the romance of Mumbai iconography. From a period when falling in love meant a gentle squeeze of a palm amid a joyride aboard a horse-buggy, to Bollywood shoots, the city’s “Victorias” have straddled generations.
Days after the Bombay High Court ordered them off the city’s roads within 12 months, the horse and carriage owners are angry about losing their business, and reluctant to accept the ban. “We are proud of our horses and our Victorias,” says Kiritbhai Thakkar of K Thakkar & Co. The 68-year-old owns 22 horses, most of them drawing carriages on south Mumbai roads.
Victorias date back to the 18th century when horse carriages were an important public transportation system in the Bombay Presidency. As late as 1945, while locomotive lines were drawn till Mahim or the edge of the “island city”, tongas or buggies served as taxis for the suburbs. A Bombay Gazette story from that year reports that there were 4,527 horses in the city, and 2,166 buggies. Then, time gnawed away at the numbers. From 1,123 Victorias in 1962, the numbers dwindled rapidly in the 1970s; the Mumbai Police’s traffic department stopped issuing new licences in 1973.
No new carriages were permitted, so new parts were soldered to old frames to keep the carriages looking new. Thakkar’s Victorias were sheathed in silver-coloured tin plate armour, embossed with peacocks and lotuses, plastic flowers stuck into joints and the disco LED lights strung up around the structure — even the poor horses were given a gaudy accessory of plastic roses behind their ears. The old style Victorias, minus the embellishments, now number just two, both running in Nariman Point.
With the absence of new licences, the fear of business shutting down some day was always lurking. But the owners say what kept them going were the memories they cherished. “I was 12 when my father suffered a paralytic attack; I had no option but to join the business. That was when we rented out horses and Victorias for Hindi films, besides weddings. The tonga and horse seen in Sholay were mine. In fact, in many shots I was driving the tonga,” Kiritbhai claims. Subodh Thakkar, owner of Vijay Horse & Cart Suppliers, recalls how many of his horses were used for mythological films in the late ’60s and ’70s. “One of our carriages was used in Victoria No 203, starring Saira Banu and Navin Nischol,” he says. That carriage is now in ruins, but Subodh has preserved a side lamp, the same one in which diamonds were shown to be hidden in the film.
Today, approximately 158 horses are harnessed to Victorias with 10 stables housing the animals, with one of the larger ones located in Falkland Road. About 130 Victorias continue to ply, but their operations restricted by the police and authorities to just Nariman Point, Colaba and a few in the suburbs.
The gloom at the Falkland Road stables is on account of the HC order earlier this week, a judgment based on a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed in 2011 by The Animals and Birds Charitable Trust, a Mumbai-based NGO. The court has also ordered that the 700 families associated with the business be properly rehabilitated, but the owners remain highly sceptical of government intervention.
“For over four generations we have been carrying on this business. We know how to give the horses medical treatment and proper diet. These horses feed us, how can we ill-treat them?” asks Subodh. Despondent at the verdict, the owners and drivers are cursing the animal right activists for seeking a total ban. If there were concerns about the conditions of the stables and the horses, these could have been monitored by the court, they point out.
“The court case is just a smokescreen, the real agenda it to seize our stable lands,” alleges Indu Palani, member of the Ashwashakti Co-operative Society, an umbrella organisation of horse owners, drivers and attendants. She has 12 horses and also ran a 20,000 sq ft stable in Nariman Point that is now under litigation after being sealed by the Collector’s office citing violations.
The Ashwashakti Society members lament that while the rich make money off horses at Mahalaxmi Racecourse, families whose subsistence depends on these animals are being turfed out.
“Our Victorias are a symbol of the city. They have become a tourist attraction in their own right. But also, the horses and Victorias are also a source of livelihood for over 700 families,” says Mohammed Hussain, 70, a carriage driver who has been in the business for over four decades.
The PIL listed improper or absent licensing of stables, the crowded living spaces for animals, unhygienic disposal of dung, over-burdening of horses, malnutrition and lack of proper medical care as reasons for asking for the ban.
Equine veterinarian Dr Pheroze Khambhatta, who also submitted a report on the condition of horses in these stables, thinks the ban is justified. “The owners and drivers do not have facilities needed to maintain the animals. Some of these animals are well maintained, and look fine but almost 90 per cent of them suffer joint and hoof problems. Many horses suffer from arthritis.”
Khambhatta adds that the animals do not have proper resting places during business hours. “They are tied to a hard granite block. Four or five horses are tied in one small stall and never have a chance to sit. Where they do get to sit is also a hard surface and no proper cushioning is provided,” he says. The Falkland Road stable is one of those visited by experts and vets during the filing of the PIL.
But the Victoria owners and drivers here have a different story to tell. They see their animals as family. “I’ve been riding this Victoria for the last 20 years. The horse’s name is Dancer and he is the sole bread winner of my family,” says Sameer Bangi.
Subodh adds that the horses cost Rs 2 lakh to Rs 4 lakh, and expenses add up to around Rs 18,000 to Rs 20,000 a month for feeding. “During holidays and weekends, these horses generate around Rs 1,500 – Rs 2,500 a day. On other days and during the monsoon, we are out of work. But we still feed them, look after them, get a private doctor to attend to them,” Subodh says.
There are attempts to approach the Supreme Court against the HC order, but the modalities are still to be finalised. Bangi and the other Victoria owners live in hope.