India: rivers recognized as 'living entities'

The high court in India's Uttarakhand state issued a ruling March 20 recognizing the Ganga (Ganges) and Yamuna as "living entities," officially giving these rivers that have seen long years of ecological damage a legal voice. "This order may be seen as a precedent and come across as strange but it is not any different from the status of being a legal entity as in the case of family trusts or a company," said Raj Panjwani, attorney with India's National Green Tribunal, a body charged with prosecuting enviromental crimes. Under the ruling, the rivers are accorded all rights guaranteed by India's constitution, including the right not to be harmed or destroyed. The ruling, which comes in a public interest litigation brought by the NGT, mandates action by the national government if Uttarakhand state authorities fail to meet their responsibilities regarding the rivers.

The decision is likely to boost the Namami Gange (Clean Ganga) initiative, launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to revive the river. The recognition was welcomed by activist Mallika Bhanot of Uttarakhand-based organization Ganga Ahvaan (Save Ganga), who said the river "has always been a living entity for us...and a living symbol of our culture and civilization."

The Ganga flows through the states of Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal, receiving a daily 1,500 million liters of raw sewage as well as 500 million liters of industrial waste. 

The ruling in Uttarakhand comes just days after a court in New Zealand accorded "living entity" status to the country's third largest river, the Whanganui, in one of the longest running legal cases that country has seen. (Live Mint, New Delhi, March 21)