A Case for Continuing with Tongas 

By Shakir Malik 

WHENEVER I would hear and read about Kashmir’s Sopore, a very pristine and  green picture would spontaneously unfurl in my head. In the year 2018, I was  fortunate to get to work there.

However, the first impression that I got there was of polluted air: endless dust  swirling around vehicles, with women, men, children and all walking like  silhouettes in near darkness. Roadsides devoid of sidewalks were powdered  with dust, and probably because of that, people would walk and vehicles  would ply side by side on the same although macadamized but narrow worn  out road, making short traffic jams almost a daily ritual. The inner streets of  newer colonies remained squalid in the winter, so much so that the jeans that  one wore for the day would become too dirty to take off in your room.

The drains carrying sewerage were not covered making houseflies breed  with greed. And Sopore lacking any dump yard or Sanitary landfill was so much  strewn with garbage and filth that by that yardstick any charm or fame  associated with its historical stature fell apart in front of my eyes, in shreds of  desolation.

Some people told me Sopore is known as Chota London, which after seeing its  unplanned growth makes the sobriquet look like a joke. But I am pretty sure, in the past, this comparison would have been drawn out wisely. It might be the  case that there has been little positive involvement of the government in its  developmental itinerary.

Why I started underscoring the plethora of problems before addressing the main  point is because you can’t scapegoat tonga drivers instead of addressing core developmental challenges that Kashmir’s apple town faces.

Also Read: Good Riddance Tongas! 

Cart-drivers mostly belong to the economically weaker section of the society. By  banning them, you are rendering many underprivileged people unemployed. A  healthy policy initiative would be to provide them with jobs before shutting  them down. Okay, a libertarian might say cart-drivers are just unlucky sacrificial goats — a roadblock to development and that banning them will open up roads  and parking lots. “Let’s not care about their employment”

However, when tongas are made invisible, there is a larger interest at stake  here, that is preservation of cultural heritage. Kashmir’s future is wedded with  tourism. And, if you ‘modernise’ everything at the cost of heritage, all you are  left with is pollution, not just air pollution, but cultural pollution. And tongas are part of Kashmiri cultural heritage. Apart from the general life-style of people  and the colours of the market, tongas are what made Sopore special to me. Krakow city, the second largest city of Poland attracts hordes of tourists not  because of absence of tongas, but preservation of its historical aura. Cart drivers are not deemed a nuisance there, but a part of history.

There is an old adage in Kashmiri, ‘Kayanladas wanawukh power kar band, tym  doup toyi kariw ache bandh.’ Because turning off the lights would have  required effort, something that the listless person can’t afford, in this case that  effort means building infrastructure, that is widening roads, building metros  wherever feasible, introducing cable-cars and building a robust public-transport  mechanism. Closing your eyes, a listless attitude, would mean telling tonga  drivers to vacate.

If traffic jam and occupation of parking lots is a  problem caused by tongas, let me propose one more alternative, and it won’t  take long-term developmental work. If you lack funds and you want to lessen  the traffic jam that is presumably caused by slow tongas, the best way that is  recommended everywhere in the world to reduce traffic is to ensure a robust public transport system and discourage the use of personal cars. It not only  reduces jams, but also preserves the environment and reinforces social  cohesion, so after public transport is kicking, hop on the public vehicle and give  up pollution-prone personal cars, or hop on the non-polluting tonga instead.

In my opinion, the administration should have incentivized using tongas. Not  only this, it should have gone a step further, and strengthened the public transport  system and urged people to use it as much as possible. But that would need  some money and effort: buying brand-new buses, providing employment to  new drivers, subsidizing the fares, etc. Tonga drivers are banned because they  constitute low-hanging fruit.

Another nuisance related to horse-carts is thought to be the foul smell. I have  heard it from many people who have been to Pahalgam that they think that  smell to be its indispensable aspect. They can’t feel Pahalgam without that  smell. By the way, we are not talking about some stinky sewer here. Probably,  you might end up liking the smell after forgetting for a moment that it  emanates from horse-shit.

Public policy is formulated keeping in mind the larger public interest rather  than somebody’s personal tastes. Given the fragile ecology and tourist friendliness of Kashmir, the first priority on the cost-benefit scale should be  preservation of the environment. And Tongas serve that purpose.

Here, I think the administration should also focus on preservation of animal rights as well. See to it that the horses are fed adequately, advise tonga drivers not to whip them and  not to overload them etc. So, if you bring back tonga drivers, you restore their  economic rights. And if you let Tongas ply, you take care of the environment.

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