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


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.)

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
Other industries
Water treatment and access to sanitation (access to sewage)
Building materials extraction (quarries, sand, gravel)
Chemical industries
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:

Along with 24 dams and barrages along the stretch of the river which are affecting the water flow and biodiversity there are other activities which are harming the river.

Nearly 89 million litres of sewage is daily disposed into Ganga from the 12 municipal towns that fall along its route till Haridwar. The amount of sewage disposed into the river increases during the Char Dham Yatra season when nearly 15 lakh pilgrims visit the state between May and October each year. According to the Ganga pollution control unit of Uttarakhand Peyjal Nigam, Haridwar alone accounts for 37.36 million litres of the sewage that goes directly to the Ganga without getting treated in any plant. Apart from sewage disposal of half-burnt human bodies at Haridwar and hazardous medical waste from the base hospital at Srinagar due to absence of an incinerator are also adding to pollution levels in the Ganga. Dams, barrages and canals built of diverson of water, dredging is destroying the river life, threatening livelihood of millions of fishermen and endangering the Gangetic River Dolphin. The constant encroachment leads to blockage of the natural discharge canals of the river leading to flooding and clogging.

Due to increase in land prices, there has been increased encroachment of land by the land mafias along the banks of the river. In Kanpur itself, almost 21 Ghats have been encroached by housing societies. On 29 March 2011, the Allahabad High Court banned all kinds of construction along the Ganga and the Yamuna by any government or private agency. Whereas in Patna, the riverfront has been reduced from 20 km to 14km. On the remaining 6-7 km municipal and solid waste is being dumped and land grabbing is a common phenomenon (RK Sinha, member, National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA).)

If construction of dams, barrages and tunnels is killing the river in its upper stretches, sand mining, illegal quarrying and ill-planned urbanisation are choking it downstream. Most mining operations along the Ganga are unauthorised and companies often illegally mine deeper and beyond the permitted zones. The effects of rampant illegal mining are all too apparent. Illegal mining has depleted groundwater levels, rendered farmlands barren and deepened the riverbed:

1. Consistent digging and mining by stone crushers had deepened the Ganga and depleted the water level in millions of acres around the river. Thus, irrigation activities were adversely affected

2. Dust emanating from the running of the crushers had affected agricultural production, leaving farmers with no option but to sell their land. The buyers were crusher owners/builders

3. Soil erosion caused by stone-crushing destroyed agricultural land and forests

4. It has a drastic impact on the ecology of the region as in most of the mining areas the river bed has become hollow, changing the course of the river.

5. Besides, the agricultural land due to cutting of riverside land for mining purpose is shrinking. This poses problems for the villagers, a majority of whom are dependent on farming for their livelihood.

6. As per information received by The Tribune, due to legalised quarrying, the state government exchequer gets annually Rs 10-12 crore as revenue, which is maximum in comparison to the revenue earned by other districts of the state.

7. Due to illegal mining, quarrying is a trade worth about Rs 200-300 crores as per the estimates of the people involved in this trade, administrative sources and the beneficiaries from the illegal trade

Alongwith illegal mining, thriving business of around 400- 500 unauthorised brick kilns along the riverbed has also had an adverse effect on the river. The law mandates that brick kilns should not be within 500 metres of the riverbank. NGOs and environmentalists say that in and around Patna, 35 km upstream to 25 km downstream, there may be hundreds of such brick kilns. The brick kiln waste, which is dumped into the river, diverts the flow and direction of the river.

The Government of India has come up with various plans and programs to clean the river, save the river, such as:

- Ganga Action Plan, 1985

- National River Ganga Basin Authority (NRGBA):

- Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission ( JNNURM)

However, 40% of the total funds under directly or indirectly marked for river conservation, so this has become an essential avenue for corruption. Crores of rupees have gone down the drain over the past many years, but things haven't changed a bit. Rather situation has further deteriorated. Instead, flood plain and river bed of majority of rivers have been sold by the governments to the private builders. It is worth mentioning that despite spending over Rs. 1500 crores by the Ganga Action Plan since its inception in 1984, the river still remains polluted. The second phase of the project, which is to get over in 2008, includes setting up of sewer lines in 8 cities in Garhwal that fall on the route of the river. According to an estimate, during its 2510 kilometre-long course from Gaumukh till Bay of Bengal, nearly 1 billion litres of untreated sewage gets disposed into the river.

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:International ejos
Recreational users
Landless peasants
Religious groups
Local ejos
Social movements
Fisher people
Local government/political parties
Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Local scientists/professionals
Forms of mobilization:Appeals/recourse to economic valuation of the environment
Development of a network/collective action
Arguments for the rights of mother nature
Hunger strikes and self immolation
Public campaigns
Artistic and creative actions (eg guerilla theatre, murals)
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Refusal of compensation
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Objections to the EIA
Street protest/marches
Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Occupation of buildings/public spaces
Official complaint letters and petitions


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

India's polluted Ganges River threatens people's livelihoods

Dams on River Ganga -

Press Information Bureau , Government of India, Ministry of Water Resources

We Are the River, the River Is Us

River Ganges, The Water Page

Looting the Ganga shamelessly

Ganga Choked

Ganga living entity case: Govt turns to Supreme Court to challenge HC order

Ganges River Pollution

Uttarakhand HC declares Ganga, Yamuna rivers as 'living entities', gives them legal rights

No, Ganga And Yamuna Are Not Living Entities, Says Supreme Court

Can the Ganga have human rights?

Meta information

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



River Ganga


Unchecked mining along the riverbed

Photo: Shailendra Pandey

Hydro-electric Projects on River Ganga and its Tributaries