Sunday, 16 May 2010

Tongawallahs of Delhi

Clip clop, Clip clop… The sound of the horse’s hooves of a tonga or a horse-drawn two-wheeled cart has been ringing on old Delhi roads for centuries but may not be heard anymore.

From the Mughal period through the British Raj, tongas were the mode of transportation in Delhi. In this new age, they are still used as effective and quick mode of alternative transportation in certain pockets like Sadar Bazar and Turkman Gate in old city of Delhi.

However, as the tick tock of the time clocks forward that too familiar sound of History—clip clop-- may cease forever. If the civic agency, Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), has its way it will stop all tongawallahas from running on the road in Old Delhi from May 31 in the ‘pretext’ of safety and controlling chaos and traffic jams on the road, especially during the Commonwealth Games. However, this is not going down well with the tongawallahs. They are angry with the decision and at the same time anxious about their future if this does happen.

There are about 232 licenced tongawallahs in Delhi who have been engaged with this traditional profession. A few more, who don’t own a tonga, are also dependent on this trade as they have taken tongas on rent.

Babu Ram, 40, says he is quite “sad” and says this decision will make him die hungry. “I have known no other work since my childhood. I have been riding tongas since my childhood to earn my livelihood,” says he.

With seven children and a wife to support, he opposes this move and says, “tongawallahs are not bothering anyone, we don’t pose any health hazard to anyone and we are environmental friendly. Foreigners love to take a ride on our tongas. Why are we being singled out whereas hundreds of rickshaws and auto-rickshaws continue to ply on the road?” he questions.

People visiting the Sadar Bazar just hop on a tonga which can carry 4-5 people at one time, pay Rs5 each person and hop off at the market, do the necessary shopping and take a tonga back.

Mohammed Yasmin, 79, has been engaged in the profession since 1982 after retiring from his government job. At the moment, he doesn’t own a tonga nor does he run one. He is the president of Tonga Association in Sadar Bazar and oversees its affairs. The Association represents 20 tongawallahs running in this area.

“I pray to God that these tongawallahs continue to work. I’m old and shall die soon. My children have settled down. But these people still have their families to support,” says Yasmin.

Moreover, he says that these tongas are running in the area which doesn’t interfere with the routes of the Commonwealth Games on which pretext they are being phased out.

“The Games will be there just for 10-15 days and for that why snatch bread and butter of so many people,” complaints he.

Residents of old Delhi are also not happy with this move. Iqbal, 80, who grew up in this quarter says tonga was the only mode of transportation in earlier days. “We used to go to the market and other areas on tonga. There are memories associated with it. It’s part of our history. But if government is hell-bent on doing away with them then no one can do anything about it,” rues Iqbal.

The irony, however, is that the tongawallahs have no other skills to survive if they go out of work. Most of them are poor and have large families to support.

For instance, Pappu, 45, has been in this trade for nearly 30 years. He has a family of eight to support. He fears if his traditional trade is taken away from him he won’t have anything to fall back on. “At my age no one will hire me to do dishes even. If I lose my work then other tongawallahas like me will be forced into theft or other anti-social activities to feed ourselves. The government won’t look after us or support to get us other work,” fears Pappu.

The government has so far allotted plots in Shastri Nagar area of East Delhi to those who have a proof of having a tonga and a licence. The tongawallahas say the allotted places are far too less and far away from this market where they live and are not conducive for doing any business.

“Those allotted spaces are open. They don’t have any roof on them. We have no idea what we can do with that space or what kind of business we can run there. We have been told to carry all our stuff to the shop everyday and bring it back with us in the evening. Moreover, for commuting back and forth, we will have to pay a lot for tickets. And if we don’t do any business on a day then god help us,” rues Babualal.

MCD has rehabilitated some tongawallahs operating in other parts of the capital like Moti Nagar and Kashmiri Gate. The civic agency plans to eventually phase out all the tongawallahs but has kept May 31 deadline for those running in Old Delhi.

With the move not only the tongawallahs but those associated with it indirectly will also be affected. Yasmin says on an average one tonga supports families of those who make the cart, paint it, decorate it, horse feed and grain dealer, hoof career, not to mention the tongawallaha himself.

Pappu says buying a tonga cost him Rs40,000 but he will not get the same amount if he were to sell it. The cart will go to the scrap yard and the horse will either be abandoned or sold in a much lesser price.

The Tonga Association in Sadar along with other association operating in other parts of Delhi has appealed in High Court against the move. For now, they are waiting for its decision on Monday, May 17, to know whether their tongas will continue to clip clop or will fade into history.

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