What It Means To Declare River Ganga A Being With Legal Rights

A river flows, eternal and meandering in her determined rush to the sea. On her way, she is a witness to the fall and rise of civilisations. A young man stands on the banks and offers prayers to the rising sun asking for his day to be blessed; a little further down, women gather and sing songs as they collect water for their day; further on, boats bob and nets fly as silver fish are chased; beyond, a young couple say their vows as they are joined in holy matrimony; on another bank, farmers get their day started; a son lights the funeral pyre of his father; a priest says a prayer to the setting sun while immersed in the waters. The river  just flows, silent witness to all of it, like time.

In an evocative order, the Uttarakhand High Court has declared the rivers Ganga and the Yamuna, "legal and living entities, having the status of a legal person with all corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a living person". This means now the Ganga and Yamuna can represent themselves in court over any violation they face. The judges said that such a situation had arisen as the rivers were losing "their very existence".

In 2012, the National Cancer Registry Programme, under the Indian Council of Medical Research and in a detailed study, called the Ganga a "cancer-causing river". They said the amount of pollutants and toxins and heavy metals had made the river a health hazard to people living on her banks. The NCPR Head said, "We know that the incidence of cancer was highest in the country in areas drained by the Ganga". Over 1,500 million litres of raw sewage is discharged into the Ganga every day; 700 highly polluting industries on its banks dump close to 500 million litres of industrial waste; we know that close to 60% of solid waste not collected by the waste management boards ends up in rivers.

The Yamuna, on the other hand, has been declared a dead river. The dissolved oxygen level, which are crucial to life in the water, is negligible. The river usually flows with heavy toxic foam on its surface and often parts of the river actually catch fire. Ostensibly, in the last 22 years, over Rs 2,000 crore has been spent on the clean-up of the Yamuna. Successive governments have allocated money and failed to help the rivers. In 2014-2015, an RTI shows that 2,100 crores was allocated for the Ganga Clean-up under the Prime Minister's Namami Ganga project, of which only about 300 crores have been used while 1,700 crores lies unspent. In total, over the years under various governments, 20,000 crores have been spent on "cleaning the Ganga". Things are worse than ever for both rivers.

This new order by the Uttarakhand High Court makes it illegal now for anyone to "harm" these living entities. If a river's life is dependent on her flow and her healthy ecosystem, then the questions are: will all activities that impinge on the flowing of a river - dams, sand mining, appropriation of flood banks for commercial activities, throwing plastic bags with prasad from temples, industrial waste, sewage, garbage dumping, encroachments for canals and indeed, the diversion of water for agriculture, illegal fishing and other uses - now come under heavy scrutiny? Can the river file a case against any person or persons performing actions she considers a violation of her rights? Yes, the rivers will have human guardians to interpret the rights, but does this mean a new era on environment protection has dawned?

A river is not just a body of water. Scientifically and biologically, she is a living ecosystem. Which means the river and her denizens are one bound, living organism. Both need the other to function symbiotically. One cannot call the river a living entity legally without recognising that the flora and fauna of the river are that living entity's blood and bone. Will this affect the government's plans to make these two rivers commercial water highways?

Does this mean the Ganga in Bangladesh is a living entity too? Or is it only our stretch of the river? 400 million people depend on the Ganges for their livelihoods. Millions more depend on the river for their spiritual cleansing. 57 million people depend on the Yamuna. Can the Yamuna now file a complaint against events like the controversial Sri Sri Art of Living Event that destroyed vast stretches of her banks and left garbage littered everywhere?

Time, will tell if this dramatic new order can actually save our rivers or if it will just be yet another wonderful judgement subverted by interpretation in our crazy need to develop. Will the rivers just flow, witnessing yet another failure on our part to return to them a measure of the glory they bring us, or will they flow with life witnessing the countless civilisations to come after us?

(Swati Thiyagarajan is an Environment Editor with NDTV. She is at present writing a book "Born Wild", her show on NDTV, on her experiences with conservation and wildlife both in India and Africa, to be published by Bloomsbury.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.