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Kolkata’s iconic horse-drawn carriages are struggling to stay in business, especially after Cyclone Amphan battered the city and tourists disappeared due to the pandemic

A horse-drawn carriage in front of Victoria Memorial in Kolkata (Photo by Alamy)

A horse-drawn carriage in front of Victoria Memorial in Kolkata (Photo by Alamy)

Soumyajit Samadder makes a living by giving rides in his horse-drawn carriage around Kolkata’s Maidan area, a magnet to tourists. In recent times, however, Samadder has started teaching children to ride horses as the tourist business has come to a virtual standstill in the wake of Cyclone Amphan and the lockdown forced by Covid-19.

Samadder and many others like him are trying desperately to adapt.

Horse carriages have been an integral part of Kolkata’s tourist experience. Known locally as tangas, these carriages provide a flavour of the city’s colonial past without its more negative connotations. Joyrides in the Maidan with Victoria Memorial in the backdrop and then along St Paul’s Cathedral also provide a livelihood to scores of people.

This is now under threat.

“It takes at least INR 300 (USD 4) a day to maintain my horse,” said Muhammad Salim. With no tourist in sight, “I find it extremely difficult to continue maintaining Chandni (the mare’s name, meaning moonlight) as well as feed my family.” Salim, wife and a small daughter depend solely on earnings from the joyrides. “My savings are almost over.”

Cyclone effect

Cyclone Amphan, which devastated West Bengal and Bangladesh in May and caused extensive damage in Kolkata also impacted the horses in the city. Some 150 horses were left to face the storm on their own because their owners had fled the metropolis during the pandemic-forced lockdown announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 24.

People for Animals India (PFA), a non-profit, took it on itself to feed the starving horses with help from the Kolkata Mounted Police and some concerned citizens. “We managed to keep feeding the horses based on donations and voluntary service,” said Ajay Daga, a PFA member. “But we cannot continue to do so indefinitely.”

Many of the horse owners have returned to Kolkata, but not before four horse were reported dead. Muhammad Hafiz, a native of Farakka in Murshidabad district of West Bengal, was one of the luckier ones.

Soumyajit Samadder on his horse (Photo by Uzair Firdausi)

Soumyajit Samadder on his horse (Photo by Uzair Firdausi)

“I hated to leave my horse Sundari, but I needed to return home to care of my wife and sons,” said Hafiz, who had left Kolkata before the lockdown. He could not return earlier as the lockdown disrupted transport services.

Hotter city

Kolkata has been experiencing increasingly hotter summers in recent years. Horses have to be bathed more often, while public taps keep running dry.

Horses find it tougher to pull carriages in the heat. Some owners give rides only in the evenings, but that impacts income. Others who were less careful have seen their horses collapse and die.

Now some owners have resigned themselves to wait for the winter, hoping the pandemic will recede and tourists will arrive for Kolkata’s famous Christmas celebrations.

“At this moment, I can only hope that business will pick up by winter,” said Samadder.

Uzair Firdausi, a student of Jindal School of Journalism and Communication, OP Jindal Global University, is interning at India Climate Dialogue.


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