Madras HC grants living being status to ‘Mother Nature’: What does it mean and what are its legal precedents?

Declaring 'Mother Nature' a living being gives it the status of a legal person, with all corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a living person

FP Explainers May 04, 2022 17:04:26 IST
Madras HC grants living being status to ‘Mother Nature’: What does it mean and what are its legal precedents?

Representational image. Wikimedia Commons

The Madras High Court in a recent order declared “Mother Nature” a Living Being with all corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a living person.

The Madurai bench of the HC invoked the parens patriae jurisdiction and placed immense importance on conserving nature, while dealing with a petition from a former Tahsildar-level official.

The petitioner sought to quash the disciplinary proceedings against him for allegedly granting patta (land deed) for government land classified as “Forest Poramboke Land” to certain individuals.

What did the court say?

Justice S Srimathy cited a 2017 judgment of the Uttarakhand High Court in which it had invoked parens patriae jurisdiction (parent of the nation jurisdiction) and declared the glaciers including Gangotri and Yamunotri rivers as living entities to preserve and conserve them.

She said the past generations have handed over Mother Earth in its pristine glory and that we are morally bound to hand over the same to the next generation.

The order said:
“It is right time to declare/confer juristic status to the “Mother Nature”. Therefore this Court by invoking “parens patriae jurisdiction” is hereby declaring the “Mother Nature” as a “Living Being” having 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.”

The order also accorded Mother Nature the rights similar to “fundamental rights/legal rights/constitutional rights for their survival, safety, sustenance and resurgence in order to maintain its status and also to promote their health and wellbeing”.

The court directed the state and Central governments to take appropriate steps to protect Mother Nature in all possible ways.

The court noted that misuse of forest lands posed a threat on a macro scale. Nature, in this case, included water bodies, flora and fauna, forests, mountains, glaciers, and air.

The 2017 Uttarakhand High Court judgment

The Uttarakhand High Court granted legal rights to the heavily-polluted Yamuna and Ganga rivers in 2017.

The court went on to declare all the glaciers, including Gangotri and Yamunotri, rivers, streams, rivulets, lakes, air, meadows, dales, jungles, forests wetlands, grasslands, springs, and waterfalls as living entities.

Other countries with similar judgments

It is not the first time that natural ecosystems have been accorded legal status. Slowly the concept is being accepted into the mainstream as countries have started to offer legal protection to nature in some shape or form.

Ecuador

The South American country became the first country in the world in 2008 to ratify a constitutional amendment to include nature’s rights.

Article 71 of the redrafted constitution states that nature not only has the right to exist but also to have its “maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles, structures, functions, and evolutionary processes” respected.

According to the Matador Network, the nation’s new constitutional amendment was put to test in 2011 when Richard Frederick Wheeler and Eleanor Geer Huddle filed a lawsuit against the Provincial Government of Loja, a city in southern Ecuador.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Vilcabamba River, which had suffered from debris buildup from a road-widening project. The court ruled in favor of the river, marking the first time nature’s rights were legally upheld.

New Zealand

Time and again, New Zealand and its native Maori have recognised natural ecosystems as living beings. In 2017, New Zealand granted the Whanganui River the legal rights of a human being.

The Maori had already been fighting for the rights of the river, also known as Te Awa Tupua. The 2017 Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Act describes it as “an indivisible and living whole…comprising all its physical and metaphysical elements.” This includes the river’s waters, the riverbed and its flora, subsoil, and the airspace overhead.

In 2014, Te Urewera National Park on the east coast of the North Island earned its status as a living entity for being “ancient and enduring, a fortress of nature, alive with history,” and “a place of spiritual value, with its own mana and mauri”.

In 2018, Mount Taranaki on the North Island’s west coast became yet another rights-of-nature success story.

Columbia

Citing the precedent set in New Zealand, the Constitutional Court of Columbia granted legal rights to the Atrato River, near the Panama border.

The nation’s Supreme Court recognised the legal rights of the Amazon’s ecosystems, claiming that the Colombian Amazon was entitled to “protection, conservation, maintenance, and restoration.”

Australia, the United States and Bangladesh are also some other countries that have acknowledged the legal rights to various natural ecosystems. Bangladesh in fact went a step ahead and declared all of the rivers in the country to be alive and entitled to legal rights.

With inputs from agencies

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