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MUMBAI, India – Drivers of Mumbai's iconic horse-drawn carriages can't imagine not plying the roads pulling photo-snapping tourists atop their kitsch-covered chariots.
Yet that time is coming, thanks to a court order calling such superfluous "joyrides" a form of animal cruelty and banning them in India's financial capital from June 2016. Carts pulled by horses, oxen or camels and used for transportation or labor are exempt.
To carriage owner Varma Ramnarayan, it makes no sense. In the days before cars existed, "it was not considered an atrocity for people to use horses as transportation," he says. "Even today when the Indian president takes a ride in a horse carriage for ceremonial purposes, no one questions it."
He says losing the trade will devastate the 700 or so families that rely on it for their livelihoods. On a good day they can earn up to 3,000 rupees (about $47), charging anywhere from 200 to 1,000 rupees ($3 to $16) a ride. But most days are not so good. In the end, they make just enough to pay their families' apartment rental fees and cover the 500-rupee-a-day costs of feeding and caring for each of their beasts of burden.
The single-horse carriages — decorated in bright, flashy lights, plastic flower garlands and tinsel ornaments — have long been a draw for visitors to Mumbai's cramped and cobblestoned streets. Known as Victoria carriages, they were once popular with wealthy families in 19th century England, and are recognizable for their large wheels and for allowing passengers to sit face-to face.
"But when we are using these horses and horse carriages as a means of livelihood, we become evil," Ramnarayan says.
Animal rights activists have argued that the carriages are illegally operating without permits, and were subjecting the animals to abuse by forcing them to work overtime. They alleged dozens of cases in which horses were injured or went lame. Earlier this month, the Mumbai High Court agreed: "The activity of using horse-driven carriages only for joyrides solely for human pleasure is an avoidable activity" and "is in violation" of India's 2001 Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, it said in June 8 ruling.
It cites previous court rulings in stating that the "right to dignity and fair treatment is not confined to human beings alone, but it applies to animals as well," and that the "right not to be beaten, kicked or overriden is also a right recognized" by the law.
The court has asked the Maharashtra state government to organize new means of work for carriage working families, and also want the city's centuries' old stables shut down and the animals cared for elsewhere.
Many of the drivers fear they'll be left jobless and will lose both their homes and their horses.
"We treat our horses as our family," Ramnarayan says, breaking into sobs. "If we can't keep our Victorias where will we go? How can I afford to educate my kids? Where will we live? We will become homeless on the streets of Mumbai."
Stable groom Kumar Sukhraj is also worried about what he'll do next. He's lived and worked with horses for 35 years, massaging and bathing the animals in the stables amid hanging laundry, overturned wheelbarrows and discarded shoes. For his work, he receives 150 rupees (about $2.40) a day. "I don't know any other way of making a living."
Some vowed to fight the ban, and noted that horse carriages produced none of the toxic emissions put out by vehicles.
"Because of vehicular pollution so many people get sick and even die, but no NGO or government authority is going after the car manufacturers," says carriage owner Osman Qureshi, whose stable dates back to the days when Queen Victoria ruled over the British colonial empire in India.
"We will fight for our cause, we will go to the Supreme Court," Qureshi says. "It might be hard, but we will fight."