Shaktiman is a horse that no one in India had heard of until Monday — when she was brutally assaulted with sticks, allegedly by Uttarakhand BJP MLA Ganesh Johri and his associates. For some 24 hours before veterinary doctors were able to confirm on Tuesday that Shaktiman might ultimately recover — and possibly even run again, there was genuine fear that the 14-year-old Kathiawari mare employed by the Uttarakhand mounted police might lose one of her legs — or even end up adding to the worrisome statistics of India’s declining horse population.
The gorgeous, snowy white mare, part of the police’s mounted unit, is one of 6.25 lakh horses and ponies in the country, as per the Livestock Census carried out in 2012. That is 24% lower than their numbers from 20 years ago — there were 8.17 lakh horses and ponies in India in 1992. Horses make up only 0.12% of the total 51 crore heads of livestock in the country.
Interestingly, only 7% of horses and ponies in the country are used for the purpose of sports. The rest are used for transportation, and in some cases, as draught animals. A tiny number — less than 1,000 horses — are employed in the mounted police units of 16 states of the country.
Why is the population of horses declining so rapidly?
Experts say that the decline in numbers is largely because the reliance on horses for transportation is declining rapidly. “The rural areas where the bulk of these horses were, has seen a shift towards mechanical forms of transport. It does not make economic sense to buy a horse for transport these days. This has led to the reduction in the number of horses in the country,” Lt Col (Dr) J C Khanna, Secretary of The Bombay Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said.
Of the horses and ponies in India, 3.50 lakh are male and 2.75 lakh female. Rural India accounts for 5.63 lakh horses, while urban areas have only 62,000. The two states of Uttar Pradesh (24.31%) and Jammu and Kashmir (23.13%) together account for nearly half of India’s total horse population.
The overall decline in the horse population notwithstanding, there has been a small spike in their numbers since 2007. The 19th livestock census states that there was a 2.08 per cent increase in the number of horses since 2007, when they were 6.12 lakh — to reach 6.25 lakh in 2012.
Experts have, however, questioned this claim, and argued that the number could have been an over-correction done on previously flawed census data.
“The general trend is that the numbers of horses are declining in this country, especially in the rural areas. There have also been a spate of outbreaks of diseases in the last few years which have affected horses. It makes you doubt this supposed increase in numbers. It may be that the enumerators have over-compensated on earlier counts that had not been carried out properly,” PETA India Director of Veterinary Affairs, Dr Manilal Valliyate, said.
Despite the declining numbers, the state does not seem keen to ensure their care. Under The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960, anyone who beats, kicks, over-rides, over-drives, over-loads, tortures or otherwise ill treats any animal can get away by paying a fine of between Rs 10 and Rs 50. The proposal to increase the penalty for mistreatment of animals has been pending for well over half a decade now.
In the case of the assault on Shaktiman, however, BJP MLA Joshi has been booked under IPC Section 429 (killing, maiming or rendering useless animals of value including a horse), which attracts up to five years in jail.
“Dogs and horses are two of the most faithful animals. Horses used in mounted units will never harm an individual. They are only trained to block a person from moving ahead. It is strange that the man should have assaulted a horse for the job that he was doing,” Lt Col Khanna said.
Shaktiman did not charge the protesters, and kept stepping back from them in the face of the attacks, until she buckled and one of her hind legs was caught in a railing.