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Granting legal right to the River Ganga as a 'living entity', India

River Ganga was legally recognised as a 'living entity' on 20th March, 2017. However, the order has been challenged in Supreme Court on the basis that the order is 'in-implementable'. This case briefly documents the events and chronology.


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.

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Basic Data
Name of conflict:Granting legal right to the River Ganga as a 'living entity', India
State or province:Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal
Location of conflict:North India
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)
Source of Conflict
Type of conflict. 1st level:Water Management
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Water access rights and entitlements
Dams and water distribution conflicts
Chemical industries
Water treatment and access to sanitation (access to sewage)
Other industries
Building materials extraction (quarries, sand, gravel)
Manufacturing activities
Specific commodities:Land
Sand, gravel
Biological resources
Domestic municipal waste
Ecosystem Services
Tourism services
Industrial waste
Project Details and Actors
Project details

Along the river length of around 2,525 km there are various projects and activities which are leading to environmental degradation. Following is a list of some of them:

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Project area:108,600,000
Level of Investment:Unclear due to many projects, industries, formal and informal activities
Type of populationSemi-urban
Affected Population:More than 400 million people
Start of the conflict:01/01/1886
Relevant government actors:Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, National River Ganga Basin Authority, NAMAMI Gange (‘Namami Gange Programme’, is an Integrated Conservation Mission, approved as ‘Flagship Programme’ by the Union Government to accomplish the twin objectives of effective abatement of pollution, conservation and rejuvenation of National River Ganga. ), State of Uttarakhand, Bihar, West Bengal, Jharkhand and Orissa, Government of India, Ministry of Water Resources
International and Finance InstitutionsThe World Bank (WB) from United States of America
Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) from Japan
Clean Ganga Fund
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:There are many regional, national and international level organisations working towards preservation and restoration of the river. These organisations are environmental action and research based, livelihood based communities, religious groups, political groups, educational institutions, as well as independent activists and researchers.
Conflict & Mobilization
IntensityHIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
Reaction stageMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups mobilizing:Farmers
Indigenous groups or traditional communities
International ejos
Local ejos
Landless peasants
Local government/political parties
Social movements
Recreational users
Local scientists/professionals
Religious groups
Fisher people
Forms of mobilization:Artistic and creative actions (eg guerilla theatre, murals)
Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Objections to the EIA
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Street protest/marches
Occupation of buildings/public spaces
Hunger strikes and self immolation
Arguments for the rights of mother nature
Appeals/recourse to economic valuation of the environment
Refusal of compensation
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Floods (river, coastal, mudflow), Food insecurity (crop damage), Genetic contamination, Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil contamination, Soil erosion, Waste overflow, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity
Health ImpactsVisible: Infectious diseases, Other environmental related diseases
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Displacement, Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Social problems (alcoholism, prostitution, etc..), Land dispossession, Loss of landscape/sense of place
Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Environmental improvements, rehabilitation/restoration of area
Institutional changes
Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
New legislation
Strengthening of participation
Technical solutions to improve resource supply/quality/distribution
Under negotiation
The River has been granted legal status as a living entity.
Development of alternatives:Apart from the recently declared Right of Nature legal status, there have been various civil society organisations who have been proposing different solutions and alternatives for preservation and restoration of the River.
Ganga River Basin Management Plan, 2015 produced by a consortium of Indian Institutes of Technology propose basin wide planning of the region to preserve and conserve not just the river but its entire basin.
There are many plans for decentralised management of the river and basin which can ensure better and efficient implementation and also ensure preservation of various livelihoods dependent on the river rather than a top-down, large scale based program.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Not Sure
Briefly explain: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.
The Uttarakhand High Court (which has copied, verbatim, some aspects of the New Zealand law), does not mention associated lakes and wetlands. Nor does it explicitly cover the catchment area or other parts of the river basins. The Indian court puts its faith in government officials, namely the Director, NamamiGange, and the Chief Secretary and Advocate General of Uttarakhand. These officials are declared ‘parents’, or “the human face to protect, conserve and preserve” the rivers. But the Indian state has not only failed in maintaining the health of these rivers, it has been complicit in diverting, damming, and polluting them. So how are its officials going to suddenly turn protector?
It is also unclear what does the order mean by 'duty of the river'. And how will the conflict be resolved in case the duty of the river is in contradiction with the right of the river. For example, the river has the right to flow, but if it is stated that the river has the duty to give electricity to the people on the banks, then how will the decision regarding of construction of hydro project be taken is unclear.
Sources & Materials
References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

Environmental Issues Of Ganga River
[click to view]

India's polluted Ganges River threatens people's livelihoods
[click to view]

Dams on River Ganga -

Press Information Bureau , Government of India, Ministry of Water Resources
[click to view]

We Are the River, the River Is Us
[click to view]

Links to general newspaper articles, blogs or other websites

River Ganges, The Water Page
[click to view]

Looting the Ganga shamelessly
[click to view]

Ganga Choked
[click to view]

Ganga living entity case: Govt turns to Supreme Court to challenge HC order
[click to view]

Ganges River Pollution
[click to view]

Uttarakhand HC declares Ganga, Yamuna rivers as 'living entities', gives them legal rights
[click to view]

No, Ganga And Yamuna Are Not Living Entities, Says Supreme Court
[click to view]

Can the Ganga have human rights?
[click to view]

Meta information
Contributor:Radhika Mulay, Kalpavriksh
Last update18/08/2019
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