Worshipped by millions in the country, rivers Ganga and Yamuna have been bestowed with the status of living entities by the Uttarakhand High Court, granting them all legal rights, duties and liabilities like a human being.
A two-member Division Bench, comprising Justices Rajiv Sharma and Alok Singh, passed a detailed judgment in this regard that was made public on Monday. The judgment is applicable to the full stretches of the five states through which the rivers flow. Ganga flows through Uttarakhand, UP, Bihar, Jharkhand and Bengal, and Yamuna through Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Delhi and UP.
The judgment comes after the Bench expressed displeasure about the state of the two rivers in a Public Interest Litigation (PIL), pertaining to encroachments on Yamuna.
Along with granting legal rights to the two rivers, the HC has also ordered the constitution of a Ganga Management Board in three months, for the purpose of irrigation, rural and urban water supply, hydropower generation, navigation.
The judgment comes close on the heels of a similar order in New Zealand, when Whanganui river, revered by the local Maori tribe of Whanganui Iwi, was granted the legal rights of a human being last week. The New Zealand Parliament had passed a Bill to recognise Whanganui as a living entity. In fact, the petitioner's counsel, MC Pant, stated the New Zealand case as a precedent. In New Zealand, the Bill was the culmination of a 150-year-old struggle of the tribe.
"There is an utmost expediency to give the legal status of a living person to Ganga and Yamuna, read with Articles 48-A and 51A(g) of the Constitution," the judgment said. These articles pertain to safeguarding and improving environment.
"All Hindus have deep astha (belief) in Ganga and Yamuna and they collectively connect with them. Ganga and Yamuna are central to the existence of half of the Indian population and their health and well-being...and they have spiritual and physical sustenance. The rivers are breathing, living and sustaining communities from mountains to sea..accordingly while exercising a parens patrie jurisdiction, the rivers are declared as juristic person in order to preserve and conserve them."
The parens patrie doctrine provides legal protection for those unable to act on their own behalf.
The judgment relied on four past ones, including one from the Supreme Court - Yogendra Nath Naskar v. Commission of Income-Tax, Calcutta - which held that a "Hindu idol is a juristic entity, capable of holding property and of being taxed through its shebaits, who are entrusted with the possession and management of its property."
Director of Namami Gange, Uttrakhand Chief Secretary, and the Advocate General (AG) of the state will be the "human face to protect, conserve and preserve Ganga and Yamuna and their tributaries," the judgment added. The AG is to represent the rivers during legal proceedings.
Across the globe, there have been other instances of natural resources getting legal rights. Ecuador is a pioneer in this regard. In 2008, it granted rights to nature in its constitution. Then, in 2011, Bolivia brought laws to grant equal rights to all nature, with rights not to be polluted, and the right to continue vital cycles.
Commenting on the order, senior SC advocate Colin Gonsalves, said, "In the western world, informed jurisdiction has given nature and wildlife the status of human beings. Giving rights to nature is an uncharted territory. It is a positive development but the real test will lie when they (courts) will face petitions like diversion of rivers for hydel projects."