India’s Ganges and Yamuna Rivers Are Given the Rights of People

A few days after a New Zealand river gained the rights of personhood, an Indian court has declared that two heavily polluted rivers also have legal status

Ganges River Wikimedia Commons/Himanshu Sharma

Earlier this month, legislation in New Zealand granted the Whanganui, the nation’s longest navigable river, the same legal protections as a person. Similar to a legal trust, the river will be represented in court by a representative of the indigenous Maori people and a representative of the crown. Now, Rina Chandran at Reuters reports, a court in India has ensured that the Whanganui won't be the only body of water with legal status: The Ganges river and its tributary the Yamuna have also been granted the rights of personhood.

On Monday, the high court in the city of Nainital in Uttrakhand declared that the Ganges and Yamuna were “legal and living entities having the status of a legal person with all corresponding rights, duties and liabilities,” reports Michael Safi at The Guardian. They appointed three officials as custodians of the rivers and ordered that a management board be created within three months.

“We seem to be following precedents in other countries where a flowing river has been granted a legal status. It is an extension of the philosophy of allowing a river to flow freely—as was intended in its nature," Ritwik Dutta, a lawyer specializing in environment cases, tells Priyanka Mittal at India's Mint news. "Any interference with the river as a whole, including construction of dams, takes away from its essential and basic character. Such a move by court would involve a re-look into construction activities across the river such as sand mining and construction of dams."

According to Safi, the ruling was the result of case brought by local officials against the states of Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh, which they claimed were not cooperating with a federal order to set up a panel to protect the Ganges.

The personhood declaration by itself won’t improve the Ganges, though, which is considered sacred by hundreds of millions of Hindus in the nation.“It is the constitutional duty of every citizen to protect our natural resources, including rivers,” Suresh Rohilla, the program director at the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi, tells Chandran. “We are failing in our duty, and we ignore other laws meant to protect our rivers. So simply giving the rivers greater rights does not automatically give them greater protection.”

The rivers have continued to deteriorate as India’s economy has ramped up in recent decades. Sofi points out that some areas of the Yamuna, which passes through several northern states, are so polluted they no longer support life.

Though the government has created initiatives to clean up the river that provides water to 40 percent of the nation, it has consistently failed to implement its plans. Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, tells Safi that the ruling on Monday likely is a move by the courts to push the government to fulfill its promises to clean up the Ganges.

The government's latest attempt to address the Ganges, the Namami Gange plan, was introduced in 2014. An ambitious five-year project, it seeks to increase enforcement of regulations against dumping toxic waste in the river and increasing sewage treatment plants. The government is also working to discourage the release of dead bodies into the river, a traditional practice, by building crematoria along its banks as well as building sanitation networks to stop people from defecating on the river banks. Those projects, however, are moving more slowly than planned, and the timeline has already been extended by 8 months.

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