Living Entity Status to Ganga and Yamuna: Various Issues

Soon after river Whanganui of New Zealand was given status of a living entity, India also had its share in the feat when the Uttarakhand High Court on 20th March, 2017 declared the holy rivers Ganga and Yamuna to be given a status of a legal entity which is a move that could help in efforts to clean the pollution-choked rivers. Here are some of the key questions & answers on the same:

Is this for the first time that a non-human entity has been given such an status?

No. So far, the Indian courts have granted this status to temple deities, religious books, corporations etc. but it is for the first time that an element of the natural environment has been declared a legal person. With this, all the tributaries, streams, every natural water body flowing continuously or intermittently of these rivers (Ganga and Yamuna) would enjoy this status.

What will be impact of Court’s Order?

The court’s order will allow complaints to be filed in the name of the two rivers, held sacred by millions of Hindus and also gives the Centre eight weeks to set up boards for cleaning and maintaining the rivers. Furthermore, the court allowed the director general of Namami Gange project, Uttarakhand Chief Secretary and Advocate general the right to represent the Ganga. These officers will be bound to “uphold the status” of the two rivers and also promote their “health and well being“. The court while delivering the judgment used the doctrine of parens patriae which means a political authority will be regarded as the legal protector of citizens unable to protect themselves.

What are major Issues regarding the status?

Although the decision has come in a wake of growing pollution of the holy rivers but still it needs to answer certain difficult issues as well. They key issues are as follows:

Fails to compare with other legal entities

The court had ignored in making a comparison with deities regarded as legal persons. “In the case of temples and their trusts, there are rights and responsibilities, but in this case there are only rights. The question which arises is that who is going to sue a river, if it runs dry, if it is polluted or if it floods?”

Impossible to interlink rivers

With the new legal status given to rivers, India’s massive river-linking scheme would become impossible. The project being pushed by Narendra Modi’s government involves the large-scale diversion of water from the Ganga and Brahmaputra basins in eastern India to water scarce regions of western and central India through the construction of reservoirs, dams and canals. This leaves open the important question that if the government interferes in the river by making these interventions, will the advocate general of Uttarakhand act?

Trans-boundary nature of Ganga

The holy river Ganga is a trans-boundary river. Not only does it slithers through a number of Indian states, but also has tributaries coming in from Nepal, and is one of Bangladesh’s major rivers – where it is called the Padma. Hence, the question which can arise is that how could the officers of Uttarakhand represent the other Indian states, and other countries?

Other rivers’ status

One of the most contentious water issues in India revolves around the Cauvery River flowing between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. It is also considered sacred, as are many other water bodies in India – giving them personhood is likely to exacerbate, rather than calm, already frayed relations.

No proper definition of “guardian”

Not defining the scope of such guardians and the extent for which they are responsible for the river’s well being.

Scope of litigation

The judgment consists of an ambiguity on what amounts to fair use and what amounts to exploitation of river resources could lead to further litigation in the future.