Cities & Architecture

The Hack Victoria Will Soon Ride Into Oblivion

“We hold that the use of horse-driven carriages/Victorias in the city of Mumbai for joy rides is completely illegal.” With this sentence, the Bombay High Court brought an end to the iconic horse-drawn tongas that have been plying in Mumbai since pre-Independence times. The bench, comprising Justice A.S. Oka and Justice A.K. Menon, has given the carriages a year’s time to phase out operations. The horse owners are naturally worried, but the repurcussions are being felt in other cities too.

From the phaetons in Kolkata to the tongas – or tangas, as they are also called – in old Delhi, carriage owners are wondering what lies in store for them.

The Mumbai judgment came following a PIL (Public Interest Litigation) filed by Animal and Birds Charitable Trust that claimed that the horses drawing the carriages were overworked, malnutritioned, and often without any proper care. The decision is being applauded by animal rights activists and has received the support of the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), though there is concern about what will happen to the horses once the ban kicks in.

The carriages, styled on the open-carriages from the era of Queen Victoria and hence called ‘Victorias’, were once the mode of transport for the wealthy residents of the city. Till the 1970s, a few were available in some parts of Mumbai to take people to interior neighbourhoods.

Relaxed ride

Today, Mumbai has an estimated 170 horses and 100 odd carriages – many of them decked up in garish colours and lights – that run along the famed Marine Drive promenade and near the Taj Mahal Hotel, ferrying tourists and others who want to get a relaxed ride. Animal activists say the horses are in poor health and motorists feel that these carriages needlessly slow down traffic on the roads.

The court declared that “Using horse-driven carriages only for joyrides solely for human pleasure is an avoidable activity.” This could easily become a precedent for the carriages used in cities like Kolkata and Delhi.

The Court has also ordered the rehabilitation of the horses using animal rights NGOs and called for the closing of the stables around the city that housed the horses within a year. “If any animal welfare organisation comes forward to take care of the horses, the state government shall be free to consider the said option,” the court said.

The decision is supposed to have impacted around 700 people whose families are dependent on the Victorias. While the court has also ordered the government to look after such families’ rehabilitation, carriage drivers have come out to say that this is the only skill that they have. “I have been doing this for 15 years – half my life. Why are they taking away our means of earning bread honestly? We are only trying to make ends meet. Who will feed our children once this ends?” the Hindustan Times reported Mohammed Hashim as saying.

Delhi next?

In Old Delhi, tangewala Salamu told The Wire he had not heard of the decision and worriedly asked if the order would mean stopping the 30-odd carriages left in the markets of Old Delhi too. “The government has already banned the tangas here in 2010, but we continue to ply. I have been riding for close to 35 years, and know to do nothing else,” he said. The key difference between the carriages in Mumbai and Kolkata and the ones in Delhi however, is that tangas here ply not as tourist attractions or ‘joyrides’ that the judgment seeks to ban, but as a cheaper alternative to cycle rickshaws for regulars in those areas.

The South Delhi municipal body had planned to introduce carriages around tourist sites some time back, but the move was successfully blocked by NGOs, according to Rakesh, a shopkeeper near the old Tanga Stand in Sadar Bazaar. It remains to be seen whether the PETA will succeed in getting few remaining phaetons in Kolkata and tangas in Delhi stopped too. Either way, the time of the tangas will soon be over, Salamu said, as more and more riders are selling their carriages and horses, and shifting to motor rickshaws.

In Kolkata, the owners of 35 of these carriages – locally called phaetons – say their carriages are registered and monitored, but PETA has already signaled that it plans to move the Calcutta High Court to get them declared illegal. The organisation has plans to take its battle elsewhere too.

Nostalgists say these vehicles need to be properly regulated and rue the ban. “It breaks the last link with a more leisurely time,” said a Mumbai resident.