Uttarakhand HC verdict giving 'living status' to river Ganga pits human interest against nature

The Uttrakhand High Court on Monday declared that the River Ganga is a living entity having certain rights and directed that a Ganga Administration Board be constituted. The Court did this while expressing it's displeasure at the current state of the river and directed the Central Government to take steps for it's clean up. This is in line with movements in New Zealand and Ecuador which are beginning to recognise what environmentalists are calling the "rights of nature".

This author has been unable to find a copy of the judgement of the court so he will only deal with the concept of recognising that nature has rights and in particular, a form of personhood.

 Uttarakhand HC verdict giving living status to river Ganga pits human interest against nature

Representational image. Reuters

A river contains water, which by itself is non living. So then, how can a water body be argued to have personhood? To understand this argument, let us begin by trying to understand what do we commonly understand by nature. If we ask an average person what they think of when they say nature, they will say trees, oceans, rivers, meadows etc. Seldom will they say something like iron ore, coal, tar or other substances that are also naturally found around us. More so, if you take something like a river, it is nothing but a flowing body of a compound of oxygen and hydrogen. So then let us take the question, is a mobile phone which is made of steel, a compound of carbon and iron also not a part of nature? Since like water, it is also a compound of elements that are naturally occurring?

Well, if you talk to the activists who propound the theory that nature is a living being, they will say no. Meanwhile, the argument of imparting personhood to rivers and that nature too could have its "rights" rests on another idea — that nature is something that ought not to be interfered with. Now this in turn would mean that the "rights of a river" would include the right for its fundamental character to remain un-altered by human beings. It would entail a trusteeship of sorts.

This means that we can use the river but we can never fundamentally change it; we must preserve it for the next generations. The river must be allowed to choose it's own course and human beings must not alter it, just as they must not permanently alter the forests, the mountains, the oceans, the sky, the flora, the fauna and other natural resources. This refrain could also be interpreted in the sense that we are merely visitors on earth and therefore we must not do any permanent damage to the planet as it does not belong to us. If we go by the aforesaid reasons, then it is very easy to come to the conclusion that yes, nature will have certain rights that a person will, the right to retain it's character and the right to certain freedoms that a person would ordinarily possess.

This results in something quite problematic, you cannot recognise the rights of nature, without having somewhere as a pre-condition the fact that nature might somehow be sacred, beyond the control or the writ of a human being to alter. The recognition of nature as a person cannot be founded in reason and can only be founded in a sense of dogma that distinguishes between nature as it exists unaltered by human beings and nature as it exists altered by human beings. This is why it is easy for most people to think a tree is natural but a mobile phone is not. So while we know, that rivers like the Ganga exist because the heat melts the snow on the mountain tops, causing various streams of water to collate and form a large snow fed river, whose water volume is increased due to rain fall. It's course on the other hand is determined by gravity and other hydrological factors driving the river towards the Bay of Bengal. It becomes easy for us to buy into the myth that the river has a mind of it's own and therefore an identity worthy of preservation as a person.

However, this is the biggest issue with the environmental approach of trying to tackle pollution by vesting rivers and other non-human entities with justiciable rights. As the idea that the writ of a human being doesn't extend to nature is no longer true in the face of global warming. The overwhelming scientific evidence of global warming, is proof that human beings do have the ability to fundamentally alter the character of their planet to suit their own ends. This means, that human beings are no longer merely subjects of nature, but are forces of it. As forces of nature, our obligation towards other natural entitles must change from one of non-interference to one of active interference to maximise benefit to us and generations yet to come.

By vesting rivers with rights, it may cripple the ability of scientists at a later date to do large scale engineering projects to clean up the rivers, maximise hydroelectricity and irrigation projects while ensuring a continued water supply. These vestments will drive the direction of technological growth only towards one direction, preservation and that is all. It needs to be noted that the Ganga- Yamuna river system is a unique river system for India as it is the only one of the great snow fed river systems India has over which it actively controls the source. This means that India may need to actively dam the river in future for her natural security and development needs along with the creation of more canals and barrages on the river.

The environmental consequences of doing this need to be assessed not in terms of how they have affected the Ganga as it stood, but only in terms of how they will affect the future utilisation of the river, as a river like lump of steel is a compound at the end of the day, a resource that needs to be utilised.

While, it is a welcome move that so much attention is finally being paid to the problems of the river Ganga, perhaps there may be an overall problem-solution mismatch. A lot of Indians across religious lines attach deep sentimental value to the Ganga as the river is an integral religious deity in Hinduism. By recognising the Ganga as a person, it may cause a lot of sentimental joy across the country, however, in the long run, it may tie the country's hands in how it would like to deal with it's resources. Environmentalism does not necessarily imply the worship of nature, it could also, and ideally should mean the full complete and most efficient exploitation of it.

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Updated Date: Mar 21, 2017 20:47:11 IST