Humans have constitutional rights. Should nature also get the same privileges?
In an interesting judgement, the Uttarakhand high court has said that the Ganga and Yamuna rivers should be considered “living and legal entities” with corresponding rights. This decision may be the first in India but it has international parallels. New Zealand has recognized the legal rights of the Whanganui river. Ecuador has gone one step further to include rights of nature in its constitution.
Economists have written about how the lack of private property rights often leads to environmental degradation, or what has been described as the tragedy of the commons. Externalities such as pollution are a burden on society because there is no mechanism to force the polluter to directly pay the victim. Nobel laureate Ronald Coase argued that the problem could be solved through bargaining, as long as there were defined property rights as well as zero transaction costs.
The recent judgements on the legal rights of rivers can add another layer of complexity to the debate.