Just a week after the Whanganui river in New Zealand was given the legal status of a person, the Ganges and its main tributary, the Yamuna, have also been recognised as ‘people’. It will mean that the rivers must be represented in court and also that polluting them is tantamount to harming a human being.
The landmark decision comes from the Uttarakhand High Court in Nainital, which also appointed three legal custodians and will create a river management board over the next three months. In a statement, the High Court said that it is hoped the ruling will:
‘ensure preservation and conservation of the two rivers and to protect the recognition and faith of society.’
As the largest of India’s rivers, the Ganges provides 40 per cent of the population’s water supply and is considered a sacred and purifying entity in Hindu culture. Conversely, it is also one of the ten most polluted rivers in the world, with an estimated three billion gallons of sewage released into it every day, as well as agricultural and industrial run-off. As the court order was passed, two High Court judges, Alok Singh and Rajiv Sharma, said:
‘The extraordinary situation has arisen since the rivers Ganga and Yamuna are losing their very existence. This situation requires extraordinary measures.’
The ruling is part of an unprecedented trend for granting legal human rights to non-human entities. In 2008, Ecuador became the first country to recognise the rights of nature in its constitution. When it comes to rivers, the new status of the Ganges and the Yamuna follow hot on the heels of New Zealand’s decision to officially recognise its Whanganui river as both a person and an essential part of local Māori culture.