The famous Ridge Maidan Shimla would have been bustling with crowds this time of the year but for Covid-19. Children and youngsters would have lined up for horse rides as has been the case for decades in this tourist town in Himachal Pradesh. Today, there are no crowds, nor any horses or horse owners (locally called ghorewale ) to be seen on the Ridge. “For the last three months we have not earned a single rupee,” laments Sher Singh, one of the 15 horse owners who has been taking tourists and locals for rides. Singh says he has never seen such tough times in his almost four decades here. “I have not been able to send a single penny to my family in Hamirpur. I have run through my savings and am living on borrowings.”

It is now peak season, and these men should ideally be earning ₹1,500-2,500 a day. But they have been reduced to asking others for assistance to make both ends meet. It may take several more months before they can hope to do any business as nobody would want to risk horse riding because of Covid fears.

Double whammy

Mushtaq of Ghoomarvi village says his profession faces a double bind. Unlike others out of jobs due to the pandemic, they can’t even take up work as daily wagers as they have to take care of their horses. They also have to feed their animals, which costs ₹300-400 a day. Mushtaq owns two mares, Naina and Sonia, both have to be fed at least thrice a day although their consumption is not as much as when the rides were on. Sherdeen alias Guddu, another horse owner, had to sell one of the two animals he owned during the ongoing lockdown.

Nearly half of these ghorewalas have gone back to their villages. “We have been suffering for the past three months, but it is only now that the State government has asked us to submit our Aadhaar and bank account numbers,” says Mushtaq. “This, after we ran from pillar to post for financial assistance,” Guddu adds. While the State government has still to offer them some financial help, the Nofal Welfare and Charitable Society and some individuals have come forward. Gurmeet Singh, Trustee of the Society, has been distributing fodder, choker (equine feed) and channa dal to be fed to the horses, as well as rations for their families.

There are another 130 horse owners who take people for rides at Naldehra and Kufri, close to Shimla. They all come from nearby villages, some not even connected by a proper road. Since most of them own small agriculture land holdings in their villages, they are at least able to earn some money by working in their own fields under MNREGA. “Demand work under MNREGA started only about 20 days ago. We are getting work only for a fortnight or so, which is not sufficient,” says Bobby. “Almost 18-20 of us in our village Odu have two horses each and feeding them costs a lot, even though we get fodder that grows in the surrounding areas.” Kewal, from the same village, has not been able to get work under MNREGA. “Since I can’t afford to buy channa dal and choker, my horses are becoming weak.”

“We are going through really bad times and things are not going to change till tourists start coming to Shimla,” the men say in one voice.

The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi