Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Back to the Future? Why the MCD's ban on horse-drawn tongas in the Walled City may be less practical than it seems

Last week, the MCD announced that horse or mule-drawn tongas would be soon be banned from the streets of Old Delhi. The Council says the move is aimed at reducing both "cruelty to animals" and traffic congestion.  According to The Hindu, BJP Councilor Vijender Gupta summed up the motivation for the policy thus:
These animals are subjected to cruelty by their owners and made to work for long hours in extreme conditions without proper food or water. Moreover, there is no space or demand for these slow-moving, animal-driven vehicles in the city in today’s age and time.
Perhaps the MCD really is concerned about the welfare of some 230 Old Delhi horses and mules, but I, for one, am skeptical about this, given the conditions under which Delhi's 2.6 lakh street dogs live.  Not to mention the lakhs of human beings who go without basic amenities, such as toilets, that the MCD is charged with providing to residents of urban villages, resettlement colonies, regularised unauthorised colonies, slum/squatter settlements, etc.    

To me it seems clear that the real issue driving this move is not a fondness for horses, but a love of cars. Traffic in Old Delhi is a mess, and tongas make a convenient scapegoat. 

Be that as it may, one has to wonder whether Councilor Gupta is right when he says there is "no space or demand for these slow-moving, animal-driven vehicles in the city in today's age and time."

What's interesting, of course, is that if there really were no demand for tongas, then there would have been no need to ban them, because they wouldn't actually be out there plying the roads.  In fact, there is a demand for animal-powered vehicles, in the Walled City and beyond.   If you look in the right places, you will find more working animals than you might think. And they wouldn't be there if somebody wasn't making a living off of them.

Of course, Mr. Gupta is correct that there is not the "space" there once was for animals in the city.  Animal-powered transportation is banned from main roads during most of the daylight hours. Though there are always exceptions.

There's a dhaba along the brand new BRT that saves stacks of stale rotis for the elephants that happen by every so often.  An elephant can eat a lot of stale rotis. 

Because urban villages like Shahpur Jat, Kotla, and Chirag Dilli were here before they were swallowed up by Delhi, some aspects of life in those areas are not regulated like they are in the rest of the city.  In these places, many kinds of animals are still welcome.  If they were not earning their keep, it is unlikely that they would persist in such numbers.

During the early morning hours, you will still find animal-powered vehicles hauling vegetables and other goods throughout Delhi.

It is true that in "today's age and time," animals have been increasingly pushed to the margins of Delhi: the urban villages, the early morning or late night hours, the less trafficked roads.  In much of the country, however, things are different.  In Soil, not Oil, Vandana Shiva writes:
In India, there are 84 million draft animals, of  which 72 percent are oxen.  They plow two-thirds of the land and provide two-thirds of the rural transportation. There are more than 10 million animal-drawn vehicles in rural India.
If you get outside of Delhi, you will see this, of course. Though you will also hear that more and more the tractor and the truck are replacing the ox and the camel. 

In the long run, however, it's not at all clear if these changes will be sustainable; after all, tractors and trucks require diesel. Whatever we think about climate change, fossil fuels are almost certain to become much more expensive over time.  (If you want a well-reasoned, understandable explanation of why this will happen, trying reading this post on the various kinds of "peak oil" by geologist Suvrat Kher.). 

Vandana Shiva celebrates the fact that when the Cubans stopped getting cheap oil after the breakdown of the Soviet Union, they started breeding oxen to replace tractors.   We should be clear that the Cubans were not acting out of environmental ideology, but necessity.  It is also clear, from what I've read, that their experience was not at all smooth.  But after some very difficult years, they were able to get per capita food production close to where it had been when they were using much more energy-intensive farming methods.  And they avoided famine, which is certainly a good thing.  Do we have a plan for what we will do if the price of fossil fuels jumps drastically?   

Perhaps Cuba's experience is something we need to study. Given that something like 25% of our GDP, 60% of our employment, and nearly all of that stuff we call food depends on the agricultural sector, maybe we should be thinking about how to make it less, rather than more, dependent on oil.  The same goes for transportation, of course--remember that your grocery bill goes up when diesel prices rise partly because it costs more to get things to market.

It is conceivable that if oil prices continue to rise, as most experts expect them to,  animal-powered vehicles may once again become economically attractive, even necessary, right here in Delhi.  It may not be long before the MCD finds it has made a mistake: maybe it was the cars we should have been phasing out, not the tongas.


  1. As far as I'm concerned, I don't really care about the intention of the government in this case. If the animals were indeed living miserable lives, then its a good thing they're off the roads.

    It also might not lead to more cars on the road. Perhaps the public transportation system might face an additional burden. It won't be easy to predict the effects of this.

  2. @Bhagwad
    It won't lead to many more cars, maybe just a few more three wheelers; I just think it reminds us to look at what role animal powered transportation and labor would play in a sustainable world. Some suggest animals should be a more important role in the future, as they do still in many parts of India. I think it's interesting that the economics of things make them appear viable here for many people even today when oil is still relatively cheap. Will they become more viable when oil prices rise further? These are all serious questions I think. Of course if the animals are miserable, then that should be addressed. But in the long run, the answer to that might mean dedicated space for animal and people powered vehicles. Hmm.

  3. I'm shocked, SHOCKED that in a city of well over ten millions, you only have 230 horses and mules.

    I live in a small state in the US. Three million people in the entire state. By my estimate we have well over half a million asses.


What do you think?