A tradition straddling cruelty

With wounds on different parts of the body, stench and filth all around, amidst the great clamor of the streets, the horses continue. They drag their feet while moving with half-closed eyes. They don’t even have the energy to neigh loudly anymore.

Horse carts are known as tam-tams. These old vehicles – which date 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”, Armenians became an influential business community in the middle of the 18th century.

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

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

However, opinions differ as to the year of introduction of horse-drawn carriages in Dhaka. According to some historians, tomtom’s journey began as early as 1830.

Fast forward to about 200 years ago, now horses are bought in the markets of Kushtia (the most expensive horses are sold there), Bikrampur, Rajshahi, Chittagong, Sylhet, Dohar and Manikganj. The price of each horse ranges from Tk 50,000 to a few lakhs.

Horses are treated like machines

At present, even though horse carts are not used regularly due to the presence of modern vehicles, the inhumane practice has not completely ceased. Tomtom stores in Bakshibazar, Anandabazar and Siddikbazar in the capital rent tomtoms for various events including weddings, birthdays, gatherings, ragdays, etc. The price depends on time and distance.

In addition, these tam-tams also travel to the surrounding neighborhoods for various demonstrations. In most cases, the horses are forced to walk all the way with the carts tied, accompanied by coachmen, helpers and bands.

One of the “Nababi digital tomtom service” horse-drawn carriages in Anandabazar, owned by Tipu Raja, recently returned to Dhaka late at night after an event in Mymensingh.

When asked if the horses had been taken in vans or had to be walked, he replied that “they [the horses] always come and go from Dhaka with the carts attached.”

On the road from Gulistan to Sadarghat, tom-toms are also available for passenger transport. The carts generally make six or seven round trips a day. On the Sadarghat-Gulistan road, more than 30 tam-tams are operating while 40 carts are operating in Bangabazar, Bakshibazar and Keraniganj areas.

The horses cover approximately 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 in the front.

Dr Mohammad Firoz Zaman, professor of biology at the University of Dhaka, said it was inhumane to have horses pull so much weight. It is already difficult for horses to walk on the paved road, and their health is even more threatened by pulling so much weight.

The food these horses are forced to live on can only be called pathetic. The natural diet of horses should be rich in fibre. Since the size of their stomach is small compared to the whole body, they cannot eat too much at once. They should eat grass and hay from time to time.

Dr Firoz also said that since the animal is a herbivore, most of the basic nutrition the animal needs comes from grass and therefore there should always be a supply of grass to meet 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 the horses were only allowed to eat twice a day – before going to work in the morning and after returning home in the evening.

As these horses have to travel a long distance on sloping roads, their hooves begin to decay and at some point their flesh is exposed. This is why stainless steel grooves are used to cover the horses’ hooves.

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

These grooves don’t last more than a day or two due to the heavy pulling. The price of steel grooves is more than 500 Tk. As a result, these grooves are not often changed.

“It’s not possible to change pace every day. Things aren’t going well enough,” said the coachman of Nababi Digital.

There are no stables for the horses. A plot under Mayor Hanif’s flyover in Bangabazar has been fenced with barbed wire to provide living space for horses.

Why does this company still exist?

Tipu Raja said that it costs nearly Tk2 lakh to build a tam-tam including the purchase of a horse. After making the initial investment of Tk 10 lakh, the owner makes a profit of Tk 20,000-25,000 per month.

However, this income is not constant. The income is highest during the winter season. According to industry players, it will take another 2 to 3 years to recover from the damage caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

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

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

Most people in this sector continue to do this job because it is a family tradition. Kamal Hossain said he never thought of doing another job.

The tragic consequences of being sick

Although a doctor’s consultation is free at the Central Veterinary Hospital (CVH) in Bangabazar, medicines must be purchased. There is also no place to keep horses in the hospital.

Nobody wants to spend more. Most of the time, the treatment is not provided due to the cost of purchasing the drugs.

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

Tipu Raja said almost everyone sells horses for 10 times less than the price the horse was bought at, when the animal gets sick. When the physical condition worsens, the horses are left in a distant field. There, for lack of food and water, the horses eventually succumb to their death.

Even though their average lifespan is around 40 years, draft horses don’t even live to be 20 years old. Kamal said many horses in nearby stores die within 5-7 years. During the pandemic, many horses died of starvation. He also added that many of their horses die from attacks while pulling carts.

This is how the life of this “royal” animal laughs. In the interest of preserving the “tradition” of human beings, these helpless animals lead miserable lives and die even more miserable deaths.

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