A court in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand has granted the same legal rights as a human to the Ganges and Yamuna rivers, considered sacred by nearly a billion Indians.
The Uttarakhand high court ordered on Monday that the two rivers be accorded the status of living human entities, meaning that if anyone harms or pollutes the rivers the law would view it as no different from harming a person.
The judges cited the example of the Whanganui river, revered by the indigenous Māori people, which was declared a living entity with full legal rights by the New Zealand government last week.
The court in the Himalayan hill-resort town of Nainital appointed three officials to act as legal custodians responsible for conserving and protecting the rivers and their tributaries.
Judges Rajeev Sharma and Alok Singh said the Ganges and Yamuna rivers and their tributaries would be “legal and living entities having the status of a legal person with all corresponding rights, duties and liabilities”.
The case came up in court after officials complained that the governments of Uttarakhand and neighbouring Uttar Pradesh states were not cooperating with federal government efforts to set up a panel to protect the Ganges river.
The court ordered that the Ganga Management Board be set up and begin working within three months.
Environment activists say many rivers across India have become dirtier as the country’s economy has developed, with city sewage, farming pesticides and industrial effluents freely flowing into waterways despite laws against polluting.
The Yamuna is the main tributary of the Ganges that officials say is tainted with sewage and industrial pollution. In some places, the river has stagnated to the point that it no longer supports fish or other forms of aquatic life.
Water from the Yamuna is chemically treated before being supplied to Delhi’s nearly 19 million residents as drinking water.
In New Zealand the local Māori tribe of Whanganui in the North Island had fought for the recognition of their river – the third largest in New Zealand – as an ancestor for 140 years.
Last Wednesday, hundreds of tribal representatives wept with joy when their bid to have their kin awarded legal status as a living entity was passed into law.
“We have fought to find an approximation in law so that all others can understand that from our perspective treating the river as a living entity is the correct way to approach it, as an indivisible whole, instead of the traditional model for the last 100 years of treating it from a perspective of ownership and management,” said Gerrard Albert, the lead negotiator for the Whanganui iwi [tribe].