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Manipur is developing an exclusive pony sanctuary at Heingang near the state capital as part of measures to protect the unique polo ponies found only in the state, where the game is also said to have originated.
Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh described polo as a "unique legacy of our forefathers", and said that "it should be our duty to protect ponies and patronise polo".
The government move comes at a time the state's pony population is dwindling rapidly. A census in 2003 counted 1,898 ponies, but the population had almost halved to 1,101 in the 2012 census. The Manipur government declared it as an "endangered breed" in 2013.
"In Manipur, ponies are let loose round the year. The owners rope in some of them only when polo (tournaments) and other religious festivals involving ponies approach. Most of the ponies are on the verge of starvation as grazing grounds have shrunk.
"Due to rapid urbanisation, the number of vehicles has increased manifold and stray ponies usually meet fatal accidents and are maimed for life," Ibobi Singh told IANS in an interview.
"A pony sanctuary is being developed at Heingang near the state capital and funds are not lacking. Pure pony breeds will be preserved and no cross-breeding shall be allowed," he added.
The Manipuri Pony, Meitei Sagol, is a rare breed. The ponies are extremely agile and tough, and are also known for their stamina, speed and intelligence. Manipuri ponies are believed to have descended from Mongolian Wild Horses crossed with Arabian and other pony stock.
The state cabint recently approved 'The Manipuri Pony Conservation and Development Policy' and Ibobi said the policy has been uploaded on the government website to seek suggestions from all sections of society.
According to the draft policy, except for the seasonal polo games and some religious functions, ponies have no use and as such their owners do not earn anything from them. The government is planning to involve ponies in state functions to ensure incomes for the owners.
Among the proposals are mounted police units and horse-riding facilities for students. Imphal will soon also have a race course and all nine districts will have a polo ground each. There will be pony-riding facilities at all tourist centres in the state.
Polo originated in Manipur. There are graphic accounts of the game in the more than 2,000-year-old written history of the state. Some countries have however claimed that the game originated in their land.
Every year, international polo tournaments are held at Mapal Kangjeibung, the oldest polo ground in the world.
Players from the United Kingdom used to bring their well-trained horses to Manipur for the tournaments, involving huge expense. However, even these horses could not outmanoeuvre the untrained ponies in Manipur. Polo is in the blood of the ponies and some years back the foreign polo players started riding the local ponies in the tournaments.
N. Tombiraj, a member of the Manipur Horse Riding and Polo Association, and others have been striving for the preservation of the ponies and are upbeat about the government move.
"We only hope that the policy will be implemented soon. It is painful to see ponies at the roadside, eating domestic garbage. They contract diseases after eating plastic-covered garbage and meet fatal accidents," Tombiraj told IANS.
There are several internationally-known polo players in Manipur. In the absence of patronage and a steady source of income, they have been eking out a living in other vocations. Now there is a glimmer of hope that they will earn handsomely once the policy is implemented.
(Iboyaima Laithangbam can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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