A tradition riding on cruelty

With wounds on different parts of the body, stench and filth all around, amidst the loud clamour of the streets, the horses carry on. They drag their feet as they move with half-open eyes. They do not even have energy left to neighbor loudly.

Horse carts are known as tomtoms. These old vehicles – that go back hundreds of years – can still be seen on the streets of Dhaka.

It was an Armenian named GM Sirco who started the horse-drawn carriage business in the city. According to Professor Muntassir Mamoon’s book “Dhaka Smriti Bismritir Nagari-1,” the Armenians emerged as an influential business community in the mid-18th century.

In 1856, Sirco opened the first European retail shop in Dhaka’s Shakharibazar, named after “Sirco & Sons.” He launched a horse cart business the same year, which was called “thika gari” back then.

In 1867, the number of carts was 60, but in a span of just seven years, it reached 300. And by 1889, it rose to more than 600.

However, there are differing opinions regarding the introduction year of horse carriages in Dhaka. According to some historians, tomtom’s journey began as early as 1830.

Fast forward to approximately 200 years, now horses are bought from markets in Kushtia (the most expensive horses are sold there), Bikrampur, Rajshahi, Chittagong, Sylhet, Dohar and Manikganj. The price of each horse ranges from Tk50,000 to a few lakhs.

Horses are treated as machines

At present, even though horse carts are not in regular use due to the presence of modern vehicles, the inhumane practice has not completely stopped. Tomtom shops in the capital’s Bakshibazar, Anandabazar, Siddikbazar rent tomtoms out for various events, including weddings, birthdays, rallies, ragdays, etc. The fare depends on time and distance.

Moreover, these tomtoms also go to the surrounding districts for various events. In most cases, horses are made to walk the whole way with the carts attached, accompanied by coachmen, helpers and band parties.

One of the horse carriages of ‘Nababi digital tomtom service’ at Anandabazar, owned by Tipu Raja, recently returned to Dhaka late at night after an event from Mymensingh.

When asked if the horses were taken on pick-up trucks or made to walk, he said “they [the horses] always come and go out of Dhaka with the carts attached.”

On the road from Gulistan to Sadarghat, tomtoms are also available for passenger transport. The carts usually make six or seven, up and down trips, a day. On the Sadarghat-Gulistan route, more than 30 tomtoms operate while 40 carts operate in Bangabazar, Bakshibazar and Keraniganj areas.

Horses travel about one and a half kilometers on the road per trip, carrying a maximum of 14 passengers each time. In addition to the passengers, there are seats for the coachman and his helper at the front.

Dr Mohammad Firoz Zaman, Professor of Biology at Dhaka University, said it was inhuman to make the horses pull so much weight. It is already difficult for horses to walk on the asphalt road, and their health is at further risk by pulling so much weight.

The food these horses are forced to live on, can only be described as pathetic. The natural diet of horses should be rich in high fiber. As the size of their stomach is small compared to the whole body, they cannot eat too much at once. They have to eat grass and hay every now and then.

Dr Firoz also said that since the animal is an herbivore, most of the basic nutrition needed by the animal comes from grass and therefore there should always be a supply of grass to properly meet their nutritional needs.

Now that prices have gone up, often three meals are not provided. Kalam Hossain of “Bhai Bhai tomtom services” said that the horses were allowed to eat only twice a day – before going to work in the morning and after getting back in the evening.

As these horses have to run a long distance on pitch roads, their hooves start to decay and at one stage, their flesh gets exposed. This is why stainless steel grooves are used to cover the hooves of horses.

In front of the “Nababi digital tomtom service,” we saw liquid Savlon being poured on the legs of the horses. No other form of treatment was being provided.

These grooves do not last more than a day or two due to heavy weight-pulling. The price of steel grooves is more than Tk500. As a result, these grooves are not changed often.

“It is not possible to change grooves everyday. The business is not doing well enough,” said the coachman of Nababi Digital.

There are no stables for the horses to stay. A piece of land under the Mayor Hanif flyover in Bangabazar has been fenced with barbed wire to arrange living space for the horses.

Why does this business still exist?

Tipu Raja said it costs close to Tk2 lakh to build a tomtom, including the purchase of a horse. After making the initial investment of Tk10 lakh, the owner makes a profit of Tk20,000 – 25,000 per month.

However, this income is not consistent. The income is the highest during the winter season. According to industry stakeholders, it may take another 2-3 years to make up for the damage caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

But then, why are they still in this business? Tipu said that he started this business as a hobby. His passion for old traditions is the reason he is staying in this business.

“Bhai bhai tomtom service” is just next to “Nababi digital.” Md Kamal Hossain is the owner. Next to Kamal’s business, sits his brother Md Ali Bhandari’s shop. They have been in this business for generations.

Most of the people in this sector continue doing this business as it is a family tradition. Kamal Hossain said that he never thought of doing any other work.

The tragic consequences of being ill

Though seeing a doctor is free at the Central Veterinary Hospital (CVH) in Bangabazar, medicines need to be bought. There is also no place to keep horses in the hospital.

Nobody wants to spend extra. Most of the time, treatment is not provided due to the cost of buying medicines.

When a horse is sick, the owner first attempts to sell the horse at a low price.

Tipu Raja said almost everyone sells horses at a price 10 times less than the price the horse was purchased at, when the animal falls sick. When the physical condition becomes much worse, horses are left in a field far away. There, due to lack of food and water, the horses eventually succumb to their deaths.

Even though their average lifespan is around 40 years, the cart pulling horses do not live to even 20 years. Kamal said many horses in nearby shops die within 5-7 years. During the pandemic, many horses died of starvation. He also added that many of their horses die of strokes while pulling carts.

This is how the life of this ‘royal’ animal titters on. In the interest of preserving the ‘tradition’ of human beings, these helpless animals are leading miserable lives and dying even more miserable deaths.

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