Elaborately decorated horse-drawn carriages are a symbol of the Indian city of Mumbai, have starred in several Bollywood films and become a tourist attraction in their own right.
However, their days could be numbered because of allegations of widespread ill-treatment of the animals, a court case calling for them to be banned and a campaign that has attracted the support of celebrities.
Representatives of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) pressure group last week wrote to the city authorities, calling on lawmakers to “put a stop to cruel horse-drawn carriage rides in Mumbai.”
“Typically, the horses are denied protection from the sun or rain, housed in filthy stables, given substandard food [if any], and rarely provided with water,” they said in an open letter.
“Many suffer from untreated injuries, dehydration and weakness, but most will never see a veterinarian,” PETA said, adding that increasingly busy traffic put horses, as well as drivers, cyclists and pedestrians at risk.
The silver-colored Victorias, modeled on open carriages used during Britain’s Queen Victoria’s reign in the 19th century, first appeared in Mumbai in British colonial times.
Whereas they were once a form of transport for the upper classes across the former Bombay, they now ferry tourists around the historic Colaba district and up the Marine Drive promenade in the south of the city.
They are a common sight outside the luxury Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and Gateway of India monument.
Several Bollywood films have featured the horse-drawn carriages, notably the 1972 crime thriller Victoria No. 203 and the 1975 action movie classic Sholay.
However, their heyday has passed. According to the city authorities, there are now just 130 Victorias left, down from more than 800 in 1973 when the last new licenses were awarded.
Concern about unlicensed, underage drivers and claims of a chronic lack of oversight of the health and welfare of the animals has mounted in recent years.
Last week, one local newspaper showed pictures of a horse that collapsed and was unable to get up for 20 minutes. Other accidents involving the carriages are well documented.
The Animals and Birds Charitable Trust (ABCT) has brought a case in the Mumbay High Court, claiming that animal welfare laws were being deliberately flouted and calling for the owners of illegal stables to be prosecuted.
High-profile Bollywood stars John Abraham, Jacqueline Fernandez and Hema Malini, who played a Victoria driver in Sholay, have all joined the PETA campaign.
Lawyer Vikram Trivedi, who is representing the ABCT, agreed that the increasingly traffic-clogged streets of India’s financial and entertainment capital are no longer compatible with horse-drawn carriages.
“Those days are gone,” he said.
Similar campaigns have been mounted to take horse-drawn tongas off the streets of the capital, New Delhi, and other cities around the world, notably those in New York’s Central Park.
Mumbai’s Victoria drivers, though, say claims of ill-treatment are unfair and the horses are well cared for.
“They get enough carrots, food and sugarcane,” said Ashok Chennappa, who has been driving Victorias for the last decade, holding a battered red riding crop near the Taj Hotel.
“I don’t see any problem,” the 28-year-old from Bangalore added, vowing that carriage owners and drivers would fight any ban. “We’re not going to keep quiet.”
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