Ganga, Yamuna living entities: Personifying nature for conservation not a first in India, there are global precedents

If a man in UK is convicted of killing butterflies and a river in New Zealand becomes a legal person, how can India, teeming with natural resources and swirling sacred rivers, lag behind ?
Three rivers and many natural resources became legal people in India and New Zealand in the recent past, posing challenges to authorities to ensure strict compliance of orders to safeguard interests of this new band of “human beings”.

Representational image on the Ganga. Reuters

Representational image on the Ganga. Reuters

Amid onslaughts on the environment across the world, tough moves to bridle the climate polluters plaguing the society are encouragingly on an upswing trend. A few cases in the recent past have kicked up healthy debates for the environmental protection and penalties on offenders. People threw surprised glances on recent news reports: a man faced prosecution for killing butterflies in UK; a river in New Zealand given the status of a human being; A tiny hill state of Uttarakhand recently delivered similar orders on state’s natural resources, including rivers, forests and glaciers.

Nestled in the foothills of the mighty Himalayas, the Uttarakhand High court had announced late last month that Ganga and Yamuna rivers were living human beings, but by the time people could assimilate the rarest of the rare order in the world’s most populous democracy, The same court recently extended the order to include a wide range of natural entities within the purview of a “living human entities”.

A Division Bench of Justices Rajiv Sharma and Alok Singh of the High court declared all the glaciers, including Gangotri and Yamunotri ,rivers, streams,rivulets ,lakes ,air, meadows, jungles , dales, forests ,wetlands, grasslands ,springs, waterfalls as living entities. The order bestowed same legal rights of living person to them. The court laid special attention on Gangotri and Yamunotri glaciers and asserted, “Gangotri is one of the largest glaciers in the Himalayas. However, it is receding fast. In over 25 years, it has retreated more than 850 meters. Yamunotri Glacier is also receding at an alarming rate. Glacial ice is the largest reservoir of fresh water on earth.”

It directed that all corresponding rights, duties, liabilities and rights akin to fundamental and legal rights of a living person be conferred on the aforementioned, so as to preserve and conserve them. Any harm caused to these bodies shall be treated as being caused to the human beings, the court said.

Elaborating the concept, the court said that a “juristic person” is created and devised by human laws for the purposes of society and government. A juristic person can be any subject matter other than a human being to which the law attributes personality for good and sufficient reasons. Legal rights are different from human rights and many entities like companies have legal rights and these rights are to be implemented by designated persons. As the new legal directives have come now, the government and others including stakeholders and users have to be sensitized about the new provisions.

The court said - We, by invoking our parens patriae jurisdiction, declare the glaciers including Gangotri and Yamunotri, rivers, streams, rivulets, lakes, air, meadows, dales, jungles, forests wetlands, grasslands, springs and waterfalls, legal entity/ legal person/juristic person/juridical person/ moral person/artificial person having the status of a legal person, with all corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a living person, in order to preserve and conserve them. They are also accorded the rights akin to fundamental rights/ legal rights. The rights of these legal entities shall be equivalent to the rights of human beings and the injury/harm caused to these bodies shall be treated as harm/injury caused to the human beings.

Representational Image of the Yamuna. Reuters

Representational Image of the Yamuna. Reuters

The court directed that the chief secretary of Uttarakhand, the director of NAMAMI Gange Project, Praveen Kumar, director of National Mission to Cleanse Ganga (NMCG), Ishwar Singh, Legal Advisor, NAMAMI Gange Project, the Advocate General of Uttarakhand, Balram K Gupta, director of academics, Chandigarh Judicial Academy and M C Mehta, Senior Advocate, Supreme Court, act as the legal guardians or human face of the newly “humanised entities”.

Keeping in mind the rights of communities living near the lakes, glaciers and the banks of rivers, the court permitted the Chief Secretary of Uttarakhand to co-opt seven public representatives from the state to give representation to such communities. The court placed on record its appreciation of the concern shown by Uma Bharti, Minister, Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation and others for their untiring efforts to save the Ganga in particular and environment in general. The court recalled the New Zealand Parliament has recently enacted ‘Te Urewera Act 2014’ whereby the ‘Urewera National Park’ has been given the status of a legal entity.

Earlier on 21 March, the HC had declared Ganga, Yamuna rivers as living entities giving them same legal rights as a person. That order had come soon after New Zealand Whanganui River was granted a living entity status. The Whanganui River, which flows 145 kilometre from the central North Island to the sea, was given legal personality by the country's parliament in the recent past.

Many said the river is a sacred and revered waterway to New Zealand's Maori Iwi people and its interests will now be represented by an indigenous group. The country's Minister for Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations Christopher Finlayson was quoted in the media saying the passing of the Te Awa Tupua Bill was a battle hard fought for."Whanganui Iwi has fought for recognition of its relationship with the Whanganui River since the 1870s".

In India, Ganga is the holiest river and also the most polluted with daily mingling of toxic materials and sewage into the river at various points during its natural course.The 2,500 km river originates from Gangotri in Uttrakhand and criss-crosses many states before mingling into the Bay of Bengal.The Yamuna is its largest tributary and originates from Uttarakhand.

Amid such trend blazing rules, in a rare case, Phillip Cullen, 57, from Cadbury Heath, Bristol, was convicted at Bristol Magistrates Court of deliberately capturing and killing large Blue Butterflies on two occasions at nature reserves in Somerset and Gloucestershire in 2015, the British media reported.The endangered large Blue fly is fully protected under UK law and alongside the High Brown Fritillary is listed as the UK’s most threatened butterfly. The Blue Butterfly had become extinct in 1979, but it has been reintroduced as part of a long-term and highly successful conservation project.

The author used to head UNI and retired recently.

Updated Date: Apr 05, 2017 21:13 PM

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