Kolkata: It is the city where AC trams run parallel to horse carts. Hand-pulled rickshaws can be spotted alongside branded cars. It is the city which first conceived the idea of underground metros. The city has traversed through technology.
But the old world charm is not lost. We can still catch a glimpse of the traditional horse cart or ‘Ekkagari’ roaming across Kolkata. The striking sound when the horse stomps its paw can be heard amidst the humdrum of the city. However, the count of riders have decreased. The coachmen are searching for other means of livelihood. The well-being of the horses are affected. The horse cart is on the verge of extinction.
The urban aristrocrats welcomed horse carts in the middle 1900s. Soon it paved its way to become a prized possession of the elite class. Then it was opened for public commute. Tagore once wote in Jibonsmriti: “ I was born in erstwhile Calcutta. I witnessed the horse carriages going by the roads, blowing off dust, with the horses being whipped.” Tarashankar Bandopadhyay once beautifully portrayed the horse drawn carriages and the coachmen in one of his works. It had become a feudal legacy.
But now such scenes are rare. Horse carts can only be spotted around Victoria Memorial. For early morning trippers and visitors to the City Of Joy, rows of ‘Fiton’ cars are available.
An estimated 35-40 such carts ply in the area. Most of them have been constructed in Varanasi and Kanpur and costs around Rs. 80,000. Horses are brought at the rate of Rs. 60,000 each from Bihar’s Sonpur. The owners rant that the state of business is at a declining trend. Recovery of investment is taking around two and a half years.
Such owners reside primarily in Khidirpur, Rajabazar areas. Raju has been in this business since three years. He confessed that the opportunity to make good money lured him into this business. But he is facing the wrath, blaming it on the Kolkata winters. Commuters have decreased drastically. Rules have become stringent. “ We charge Rs.300-700 per trip. During Christmas, we earn in thousands. But the fares dip to Rs.150 in off-seasons. Some days even go without a single penny. This income doesn’t suffice for the rest of the year.”
36 year old Vinod Shah has been serving as a coachman. But the income is not enough to make his both ends meet. So he sought other means of livelihood by bird business. He claims that he is not the only one. Most of them are resorting to such means to earn their daily bread.
The welfare and maintenance of horses are deficient. The primary reason being that nurturing a horse costs a bomb, around Rs. 500 per day. So it is not feasible for the owners to provide proper tender round the year. Only in the winter months, they can provide the horses with nutritious diet. For the rest of the year, the animals strive on greens. The horses also need to be massaged at regular intervals for proper blood circulation. But the root cause is the lack of funds.
The legendary mode of transport in Kolkata was faced with an existential crisis some days back. But High Court ruled out all crunches. But obtaining licenses has always been a bone of contention. Some allege that state government has abandoned all V-licenses issued by the erstwhile British. But new permits are still not on the cards. Only 23 such carts are officially licensed. Sometimes, some hired carts have been penalized during any kind of festivities. It is difficult to free the vehicle from court in such instances.
Bhawanipore’s Arunangshu Chattopadhyay was one of the ardent visitors to the Victoria Memorial. The septuagenarian was accompanied by his grandchildren who posed excited smiles after a horse cart ride. He got nostalgic while sharing his early experiences. The changing colours of the city is a fun in itself, he added.
Reported By: Debjani Sarkar
Edited By: Ahana Sen Gupta
Photos By: Shashi Ghosh