An Indian court has given the status of living entities to two of the country’s major rivers – a move it said would help in the preservation and conservation of rivers that Hindus regard as sacred, but whose waters have turned into a toxic cocktail due to the dumping of raw sewage and industrial waste from crowded cities along their banks.
India is not the first country where this has happened. Last week in New Zealand, the Whanganui River was granted the same legal rights as a person after the local Maori tribe fought for recognition of the river as an ancestor.
Taking a cue from the New Zealand case, the Uttarakhand High Court in North India said that the "legal status" conferred on the Ganges and its main tributary, the Yamuna, means that polluting or damaging the rivers will be legally equivalent to harming a person.
Millions of Hindu devotees call the Ganges River “Maa” or mother and consider its water holy. At spots considered sacred, they come to perform the last rites of their loved ones and take a dip in the river, believing it will wash away past sins.
The 2,500-kilometer-long river flows from the Himalayas through crowded plains into the Bay of Bengal.
"The rivers are central to the existence of half of the Indian population and their health and well-being. They have provided both physical and spiritual sustenance to all of us from time immemorial," the court order said.
The order came in response to public interest litigation.
"This will help protect the rivers, as they now have all the constitutional and statutory rights of human beings, including the right to life," said lawyer M.C. Pant , who has been on the forefront of many environmental court battles.
The Uttarakhand High Court has appointed three officials to act as legal custodians for the two rivers.
Some experts voiced skepticism, saying the practical implications of giving the rivers living status were not clear. They say the order would only help if authorities take steps to build sewage treatment plants and reduce the dumping of industrial waste.
“The court order no doubt has a very good intention, so that people put it in priority, but only if it is implemented, because implementation has always been a problem,” said Sushmita Sengupta at the Center for Science and Environment in New Delhi.
Efforts to clean up the Ganges and the Yamuna have been taking place for decades and successive governments have spent billions of dollars on high profile projects – but environmentalists say there is little to show for it. The courts have often chided the government for lack of progress.
Last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government again took up the challenge and launched a $3 billion project to rejuvenate the Ganges. The Hindu nationalist prime minister has said that cleaning the holy river is a top priority.
Sengupta said so far there is hardly any improvement in the river. “They made a very good holistic plan, but we have not seen any implementation...date and we have not see any change or improvement in the quality of water. That is the concern,” said Sengupta.