Riding on mere hope?
The Manipuri pony is facing extinction. If it disappears, so will the unique Manipuri polo
Two spectacles unique to Manipur might disappear in the near future. The growing fear that the ten hands ‘high’ pony could become extinct will be a double blow to Manipur. If the pony becomes extinct, the spectacularly unique Manipuri polo will also end.
The last census of the ponies held in 2012 found that there were just 1,100 ponies left in Manipur. The fear is that their population has further decreased. And with that comes the threat the original polo game of Manipur will fizzle out.
And that will be a pity. Polo connoisseurs say the kind of polo games played with the regular 14 hands high horses lacks originality. They feel the sturdy horses shipped from the West are clumsy and come nowhere near the grace of the Manipuri ponies. The small but efficient ponies are said to outpace and out manoeuvre the bigger breeds which are well fed and well trained. In Manipur, the ponies are let loose in fields and are reined in only days ahead of the polo. The only training happens when players take them to the fields for the games.
And that's where the beauty unfolds. While the bigger horses have to be nudged in the direction of the ball, the little Manipuri ones need no such guidance. They chase the ball on their own free will. So much so, the European players have stopped bringing their horses to Manipur and it's quite a sight seeing six-footer players riding the tiny ponies. And, more often than not, the Manipuris win the games against the Europeans.
Will all this end? Rapid urbanisantion, the growing population, shrinking fields threaten the Manipuri pony. Wherever there are fields, the extensive use of fertilisers adds to the threat. There are no stables for these ponies and very little medical treatment available mainly because both the pony owners and polo players come from poor backgrounds. With fields disappearing, the animals stray into towns and eat rubbish thrown out of hotels and houses. Many ponies have choked to death after eating plastic bags left in the garbage. Increasing number of accidents involving ponies and vehicles has also been an alarming factor.
N. Tombiraj, secretary general of the Manipur Pony Society, is a worried man though there have been campaigns to save the Manipuri pony. Some years back, a pony setup was opened by the veterinary department at Tingkhai Khunnou in Senapati district. But the Rs 2 crore set aside by the department was wasted away. With no further funds released, the staff at Tingkhai Khunnou went back to their heads and the structures created have been taken over by some former tribal rebels.
The Manipuri government says it’s making efforts to save the pony. State Veterinary Minister Govindas Konthoujam says, "The government is going to acquire 70 acres of land for setting up a pony sanctuary at Heingang near Imphal. We have sent a Rs 78 crore project report to the Central government". But this project, even if it’s cleared, faces a huge problem. The earmarked sanctuary is in paddy fields and the farmers there say they will never surrender their land.
If the government does not act fast, the future is grim. Both for the Manipuri pony and the thrilling Manipuri polo.
( The writer is a senior journalist based in Imphal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)