As living entities, win for Ganga, Yamuna

The Uttarakhand High Court’s ruling declaring the Ganga and the Yamuna as living and legal entities may give a fresh dimension to the efforts to stop the pollution and degradation of the two rivers. The order is one of a kind as it makes the two rivers legal personalities entitled to all the rights granted to humans by the Constitution. The order makes action against those who pollute the rivers legally easier. Just as bodily harm done to a person is a crime, violence inflicted on the rivers will be considered a cognizable offence. Criminal action can be initiated against those who cause pollution to the rivers, which is a violation of their right, without complaints from third parties. The rivers can also be parties to disputes. The ruling breaks new ground in the handling of environmental issues and gives a new perspective on nature.

It is the first time in India that a river, a thing of nature, has been given a legal identity. It is also the second such case in the world. A court in New Zealand recently accorded legal status to a river, Whangunui, revered by the Maori people. In a general sense, Ecuador has included the rights of nature in its constitution. In India, gods have been accepted as legal persons for a long time, and they have rights including the right to property. The Ganga is more than a river in India and has a divine personality who has even assumed a human form and had a son. But the divine status has not helped it to remain clean and free of earthly pollution. It is not known how and to what extent the newly acquired legal status will help in cleaning the river. All the projects to cleanse and rejuvenate the Ganga, including the present government’s Namami Gange programme, failed not because of legal problems or lack of legal support, but because of lack of will and clear plans, failures at the level of implementation, mismanagement and corruption. These issues have to be addressed first.

There are some doubts about the scope of the ruling. There is a view that it applies only to the stretch of the river in Uttarakhand because the high court has jurisdiction only within the state. In that case, the courts or the legislatures in other states where the river flows or the Supreme Court may have to take a similar decision, if they consider it necessary. Since the river is considered feminine, will the more stringent laws aga­inst violence to women apply to pollution of the Ganga?

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