New Delhi: The Uttarakhand high court has recognized the Ganga and the Yamuna as so-called living entities, giving the rivers that have seen years of damage at the hands of humans, a legal voice.
Animals, for instance, aren’t considered living entities by law. Only humans are.
“This order may be seen as a precedent and come across as strange but it is not any different from the status of being a legal entity as in the case of family trusts or a company," said Raj Panjwani, a practicing lawyer at the National Green Tribunal (NGT).
Still, it is the first time a court has recognized a non-human as a living entity in India.
The recognition came while the court was hearing a 2014 public interest litigation (PIL).
The bench comprising Justices Rajiv Sharma and Alok Singh also held that if the state government failed to fulfil its responsibility regarding the rivers, then the central government should step in.
The court also directed the central government to constitute the Ganga Management Board within eight weeks to look into the issue of cleaning and maintaining the river.
Recognizing the rivers as a living entity grants them new found legal identity and all rights laid out in the Constitution of India.
The two rivers thus have the right to be legally protected and not be harmed/destroyed. They can also be parties to disputes. The rights, experts say, can be used to protect the interests of the rivers.
The court’s recognition of the rivers comes just days after New Zealand according a living entity status to its third largest river, Whanganui, in one of the longest running court cases that country has seen. The country passed a bill declaring the river as a living entity and appointed two guardians to protect its interests.
“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. 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," said Ritwik Dutta, a lawyer specializing in environment cases.
The decision is likely to boost the Namami Gange (Clean Ganga) Mission, a pet project of Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched to clean and revive the river. The centre approved an outlay of Rs20,000 crore for five years for the centrally financed mission and created a ministry to focus on it. To reach out to people along the river, the government has been working on developing villages as part of its programme. In the first phase, 400 villages are being developed.
The court’s recognition of the Ganga was welcomed by activist Mallika Bhanot of Uttarakhand-based non-governmental organization Ganga Ahvaan who said the Ganga “has always been a living entity for us... and a living symbol of our culture and civilization." The organization has been working to maintain the minimum flow in the river.
The Ganga, often called India’s lifeline, has significant economic, environmental and cultural value attached to it. Originating in the Himalayas and flowing into the Bay of Bengal in the east, it travels for more than 2,500km through the plains of northern and eastern India, passing through 29 major cities, 23 small cities and 48 towns.
The river flows through Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal and touches nearly 167 constituencies in the Lok Sabha. In the 2014 parliamentary polls, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won in 90 of these. The party recently won assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand.
Over 1500 million litres of raw sewage is discharged into the Ganga every day. This joins 500 million litres of industrial waste dumped by more than 700 highly polluting industries located along it.
Pretika Khanna and Mayank Aggarwal contributed to the story.