SRINAGAR: Traditional horse riding was replaced in hilly Gulmarg some years ago by all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) with the aim of improving the socio-economic conditions of pony wallas there. However the project has proved non-viable, leading the government to put a cap on its expansion plans, an official of the Tourism Department told Kashmir Reader on condition of anonymity.
About 57 out of the 200 pony wallas then active were given ATVs on subsidy by the government to increase their income by 100 percent and improve their social status. In 2018, according to the president of ATV Vehicles, Gulmarg, Abdul Majeed Lone, the income of ATV wallas remains by and large the same, which has not improved their life style.
Majeed gave the instance of his own socio-economic condition. In 2014, when he for the first time exchanged his 30-year-old riding profession for the ATVs, he owned a house and could maintain his wife and four children in good standing. One child was already in a job, the rest were still completing their education. Today, Majeed’s youngest child helps his father and studied only up to 5th standard. His highest-educated child is his daughter, who has done 9th standard. Another is studying in 8th.
“Nothing has improved in our lives except that we are given respect,” said Majeed. “We have to pay about Rs 16,000 to the bank for a loan, spend about Rs 15,000 on petrol and some Rs 3,000-5,000 on maintenance. We are left with just Rs 15,000 to 20,000 a month. The income is the same as what a pony walla earns, but we instead have to maintain more logistics.”
Majeed purchased an ATV for more than Rs12 lakhs, seven lakhs of which were on loan from a bank which he has to repay in five years at a Rs 16,000 monthly instalment. He replaced his first ATV in 2017, just three years after he got it, when it was otherwise supposed to deliver for at least a decade. Now, to make ends meet, Majeed said, they have divided the 57 ATV wallas into two groups. One group, he said, gives money that goes into a collective bowl and then at the end of the month shares out the total earnings.
“This is our story of how we make ends meet. The ATVs were intended to bring change, but our lives are the same,” he added.
A Tourism Department officer serving at Gulmarg told Kashmir Reader on condition of anonymity that no more ATVs will be added because the plan has not served its purpose. He said initially it was proposed to bring a change and replace all pony wallas, but it has brought environmental concerns with it, and no betterment in economic state.
“We have decided not to bring them anymore. It has become a concern,” he added.