In an interesting move, a court in the state of Uttarakhand in India has ordered that the Ganges and the Yamuna rivers be granted the same legal rights as humans. That is to say, the rivers must be granted status as living human entities.
While the order technically means that polluting or damaging the rivers will be illegal, it’s not quite clear what the repercussions of the decision will be in actual practice.
To those unfamiliar with the region, it should probably be explained here that the Ganges is considered to be sacred by Hindus, but has become increasingly polluted in recent years as the country’s population has swelled.
The decision was apparently spurred to a degree by the recent decision by the government of New Zealand to declare the Whanganui River a living entity and to grant it legal rights. The Whanganui River is considered by some of the local Māori groups on North Island to be an ancestor.
The Guardian provides more: “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 court in the Himalayan resort town of Nainital appointed three officials to act as legal custodians responsible for conserving and protecting the rivers and their tributaries. It ordered that a management board be established within 3 months.
“The case arose after officials complained that the state governments of Uttarakhand and neighbouring Uttar Pradesh were not cooperating with federal government efforts to set up a panel to protect the Ganges.”
As noted by an engineer who coordinates the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People by the name of Himanshu Thakkar, the implications of the decision aren’t all that clear: “There are already 1.5 billion liters of untreated sewage entering the river each day, and 500 million liters of industrial waste. All of this will become illegal with immediate effect, but you can’t stop the discharge immediately. So how this decision pans out in terms of practical reality is very unclear.”
Thakkar continued: “(The) government has been trying to clean up the river by spending a lot of money, putting in a lot of infrastructure and technology, but they aren’t looking at the governance of the river.”
Thakkar used the Yamuna as an example, referencing the fact that there are 22 sewage treatment plants in Delhi but that “none of them are functioning according to their design in terms of quantity and quality, and we don’t know the reason.” He sees the solution as fairly clear: “You need a simple management system for each of the plants and give independent people the mandate to inspect them, question the officials and have them write daily and quarterly reports so that lessons are actually learned.”
If you’ve never been to India, you may be wondering right now how badly polluted the rivers could be. The answer is: very polluted. Industrial pollution has increased greatly in recent years, as have plastic litter and untreated sewage (thanks in part to the rapidly growing population). Agriculture pesticides and fertilizers are known to contaminate the rivers in large quantities.
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