Ascribing Legal Rights to Rivers

Even rivers have legal status now. The trend was started with some rivers in the Victorian state of Australia. Later the Whanganui river in New Zealand and the Ganga and Yamuna also acquired the legal status.

The order of the Uttarakhand High Court granting the legal status to rivers was subsequently stayed by the Supreme Court.

What do the Legal Rights Mean?

The legal rights to rivers mean that the Rivers Ganga and Yamuna along with all their tributaries, streams, every natural water flowing with flow continuously or intermittently of these rivers, are declared as juristic/legal persons/living entities having the status of a legal person with all corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a living person in order to preserve and conserve river Ganga and Yamuna.

The Director NAMAMI Gange, the Chief Secretary of the State of Uttarakhand and the Advocate General of the State of Uttarakhand were declared persons in loco parentis as the human face to protect, conserve and preserve Rivers Ganga and the Yamuna and their tributaries. These Officers are bound to uphold the status of Rivers Ganges and Yamuna and also to promote the health and well-being of these rivers.

Even though the rivers Ganga and Yamuna obtained legal rights, they got the rights as minors. They needed guardians. Granting legal rights to rivers (and water-bodies) opens up a new area of environmental jurisprudence.

Why Ganga and Yamuna Need Legal Rights?

The core issue is pollution. If BOD values exceed eight milligrammes per litre, the river will be regarded as severely polluted.

Between Wazirabad and Okhla, Yamuna has a BOD level of 32, 55 and 70, at three different places. Between Kala Amb and Narayan Garh, the Markanda river in Haryana has a BOD value of 590.

If one lists the most polluted rivers in the world, Ganga and Yamuna will invariably figure on these lists. This shows the severity of the problem of river pollution.

Sources of River Pollution and Tackling them

The main reasons for pollution in rivers are raw sewage and industrial waste. Neither problem is new. As part of efforts to clean the rivers, a Royal Commission on Sewage Disposal was established in 1898 in Britain. The commission produced ten reports. These reports were guiding lights for policy formulation in Britain for decades.

Another such novel initiative in India was Kashi Ganga Prasadini Sabha, established by concerned citizens of Varanasi in 1886. Its objective was to introduce drainage and clean up the river.

The efforts of the Royal Commission and Namami Gange are primarily about what the government does. But the efforts of Sabha were more about what citizens did.  In addition to the government bit, the citizen bit is also very much required. Indian river conservation efforts must take cues from them.

Thames Conservation Model

A letter Michael Faraday wrote to The Times in 1855 states that “The appearance and the smell of the water forced themselves at once upon my attention. The whole of the river was an opaque, pale brown fluid.” Furthermore than a century later, in 1957, the Natural History Museum declared the Thames biologically dead. But today River Thames is listed among the world’s cleanest rivers today. The story of its rebirth dates to the late 1960s, not earlier. India can surely learn from the model and it’s never late to make a mark.

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