On March 20th, 2017, the River Ganga was granted rights as ‘juristic/legal person/living entity’. The River Ganga stretches over 2,510 kms across Bangladesh, India and Nepal with a catchment area of about 8,61,404sq. km. The Ganga is India’s longest river, supporting about 43% of India’s population (448.3 million as per 2001 census), home to rich flora and fauna biodiversity and the fertile alluvial plains of the land, this river has been source of life for millions of people.
Flowing though 5 major states (Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal) and due to the perennial nature of the river, the river banks have become locus points for many major cities, agriculture, intensive industries, leather tanneries. The huge water flow makes the river ideal for construction of hydroelectricity projects, dams and barrages for irrigation purposes. Currently, there are around 24 completed dams/barrages over the entire stretch of the river. Further, this river also is of great religious importance to the Hindu pilgrims. Every year thousands of tourists and pilgrims visit the Ghats of the river for religious prayers.
The large scale dependence on the river and its significance in the lives of the people is currently threatening the existence of the river. In the upper reaches of Ganga, many hydro projects threaten the water quality and aquatic life in river’s ecosystem and in the plains, the pollution from municipal and industrial waste, untreated garbage, agricultural run-off, open defecation, dumping of carcasses and religious samagri have all contributed to pollution of the river, death of biodiversity in the river and has rendered the water unsuitable for use, making it among the world’s top five polluted rivers in 2007. Zero management for solid waste has blocked the nalas (streams), and manholes resulting in overflow of sewage into the river canals. Various local communities, local, national Environmental Justice Organizations (EJOs), researchers, and activists have been resisting to save the river and the endangered species.
The struggle for preservation and restoration of the River can be traced as far back as to 1886. Environmental historian Jon McNeil records in Something New Under the Sun that "The Ganges’ fetid condition gave rise to one of the world’s first antipollution societies, all the way back in 1886." The basic objective taken by the people was to create mass awareness for an eco-friendly, non-violent culture of development for the protection of our life-sustaining natural systems in general and of the sacred Ganga and the Himalayas in particular; on the other hand, to put moral pressure on the government, to take time-bound decisive steps to completely and permanently save the Ganga.
Various movements undertaken by eminent groups and activitists are as follows: - Save Ganga Movement, 1998 - Save Ganga Rally at Delhi (12th Nov, 2000) - Save Ganga Yatra from Gangotri to Ganga Sagar (May 2002-Nov 2003) - 1st National Workshop on 'Gandhi Ganga and Giriraj' (1st & 2nd October, 2004) - Save Ganga & Save Himalayas March, New Delhi (12th March, 2006) - Save Ganga & Save Himalayas March, New Delhi (12th March, 2008) - Save Ganga & Save Himalayas Yatra from Badrinath to Rameshwar - Save Ganga & Save Himalayas Meeting-cum-Panel Discussion, New Delhi (12th March, 2010) - 'Ganga Sammelan' in 2011 - Activists such as Hindu seer Swami Nigamanand Sarastwati fasted unto death, protesting against illegal mining in Haridwar (Uttarakhand) After his death the protest was carried on by the leader Swami Shivananda. This led to a ban on illegal mining all over Haridwar. But the mining stills continue under the existence of the ban and the municipal corporation. - Prof. G. D. Agrawal’s fasted unto death and protested to call for National River Ganga Basin Authority (NRGBA) meeting and urging the authorities to utilize the 2,600 crore (~520M USD) sanctioned for creating sewer networks, sewage treatment plants, sewage pumping stations, electric crematoria, community toilets and development of river fronts. Along with activists, local NGOs, Supreme Court of India has also been working on the closure and relocation of many of the industrial plants along the Ganges and in 2010. The Government declared the stretch of river between Gaumukh and Uttarkashi an "eco-sensitive zone".
Following these and many such meetings, clean-up programs, legal proceedings, bans, on 20th March, 2017, the Uttarakhand High Court ruled that the Ganga and Yamuna, and their tributaries, have rights as a ‘juristic/ legal person/ living entity’ based on a Public Interest Litigation filed by Haridwar resident Mohammad Salim, regarding the high levels of pollution and encroachment in the river and its tributaries.
The Uttarakhand court order recognises that rivers are lifelines and culturally significant for people living along them. Thus, they see rivers as ‘living’ entities, with ‘spiritual and physical’ characteristics. Human beings are appointed as custodians to protect the rivers’ rights. The order extends to the rivers “the status of a legal person with all corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a living person”. The order recognises the religious significance of the river for the Hindus and aims to protect these values. According to the order: “Rivers Ganga and Yamuna, all their tributaries, streams, every natural water flowing with flow continuously or intermittently of these rivers, are declared as juristic/legal persons/living entities having the status of a legal person with all corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a living person in order to preserve and conserve river Ganga and Yamuna. The Director NAMAMI Gange, the Chief Secretary of the State of Uttarakhand and the Advocate General of the State of Uttarakhand are hereby declared persons in loco parentis as the human face to protect, conserve and preserve Rivers Ganga and Yamuna and their tributaries. These Officers are bound to uphold the status of Rivers Ganges and Yamuna and also to promote the health and well-being of these rivers.”
In May 2017, Central Government and Uttarakhand State Government appealed to the Supreme Court against the Uttarakhand High Court decision regarding granting the right of 'living entity' to the River based on the clause the grant is not implementable and is 'unsustainable in law'.
The Uttarakhand State Government stated that given that the rivers run through different states, it is for the centre to frame policy on protecting them. "There is no dispute that river Ganga and Yamuna and other tributaries in India... support and assist both life and natural resources and the health and well-being of the entire community. (But) only to protect the faith of society, the rivers cannot be declared as legal persons." Currently, the order is on stay due to the ongoing legal procedure.
(Please note that some of the answers and information have been documented in order to fit to the template of the database form. Please consider this caveat while reading this case. For example, the 'impact' section refers to the impact of the projects, and other human activities on the river which have been degrading the river, not the impact of the granting of legal personality to the river.)