The Uttarakhand High Court on Monday recognised river Ganga as the first ‘living entity’ of India, granting it the same legal rights as a human being.
Being recognised as a living entity has several legal implications. Since the High Court order is not out in public domain yet, one can’t be sure of what the order exactly means.
Nature having rights, however, has precedence in several other countries where similar legal orders have been passed.
Monday’s ruling comes after the court heard a PIL by advocate Lalit Miglani in December. In the last hearing, the court had ordered the closing down of 150 “defaulting” commercial establishments, and asked for a fine on anybody who’s found defecating, littering or urinating within a radius of 500 metre of the river.
What Does it Mean in Layman Terms?
Cutting beyond the legalese, what does the court statement indicate?
The High Court has passed numerous orders relating to the cleaning up of the Ganga, so it is safe to assume that the preservation of the river is the objective behind this ruling, Vakasha Sachdev, a lawyer told The Quint.
Vakash Sachdev, lawyerIt is also likely that this step has been taken so that cases can be brought before the courts directly on behalf of the Ganga river. This could be an extremely useful tool in fighting actions like dumping of waste in the river, instead of having to show that a given person or persons is harmed because of the consequences of dumping waste in the water. The dumping of waste will now directly constitute harm.
The news also got Twitter rolling, seeking answers to what this could mean.
Not the First Instance of Nature Having a ‘Legal Identity’
While the idea of a river being recognised as a ‘living entity’ might be new to India, nature having legal rights is a concept already codified in countries like Ecuador and New Zealand.
Ecuador actually became the first country to recognise the ‘Rights of Nature’ in its Constitution. Rather than treating it as a property, and hence right-less, the constitution treats nature as having the “right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles.”
It was only a few days ago that New Zealand’s Whanganui River won personhood rights.
Chris Finlayson, the New Zealand minister who was responsible for the negotiations, said that the order means the river “will have its own legal identity with all the corresponding rights, duties, and liabilities of a legal person.”
It should be added, however, that the situations in Ecuador and New Zealand are also slightly different than is the case here. In Ecuador, the issue related to the rights of nature, not an equation of the river with living entities in the same way as humans. In New Zealand, the local Maori culture and its beliefs about the river were key in the decision of their parliament to grant it rights.
Ganga and its Cleaning Projects
More than 3,000 million litres of untreated sewage from the towns along the river are pumped into the Ganga on a daily basis, according to several estimates.
In May 2015, the Centre had set up the 'Namami Gange' project in an attempt to cleanse and preserve the river. The government set a budget of Rs 20,000 crore for five years (2015-2020) for the same.
Earlier in the month, the Uttarakhand High Court had come down heavily on the Union and Uttarakhand state government for doing “nothing concrete” to clean the river. The court slammed them for wasting efforts on reviving a lost river Saraswati but not taking efforts on maintaining Ganga.