In a landmark judgment, the Uttarakhand High Court has declared the rivers Ganga and Yamuna as legal entities, making this the first of its kind instance in India where these rivers will enjoy all rights, duties and liabilities of a living person.
Wait, before you think this is ”going too far” – after all, this is the first time that rivers have been declared as legal entities in India.
You are bound to ask questions – “Why this new move?”
The cultural and geographical importance of rivers in our country can be traced back to the Indus Valley civilisation. Our textbooks tell us this is where the roots of a civilized way of life began to sprout around the Indus river area.
Not just India, a glance at all the ancient Civilisations of the world can point to how civilizations took root and flourished around the rivers. Now that is exactly what we have been careless about in recent decades – our rivers are becoming more polluted and we don’t do anything at our end about cleaning dirty roads, let alone dirty rivers where people dump all kinds of things and industrial bodies are known to dump toxic substances. The causes of river pollution are plenty but the problem is a greater one – we don’t care enough about protecting rivers nor do we bother about creating a regulatory framework to protect our rivers.
Let’s find out the reasons behind this ”extraordinary” move by the Uttarakhand High Court.
Observing that this extraordinary situation arose because the rivers are losing their very existence, the judgment makes it clear that ‘this situation requires extraordinary measures to be taken to preserve and conserve the rivers Ganga and Yamuna.”
The court also expressed strong words of disapproval that Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand were not co-operating with the Central government for the constitution of the Ganga Management Board. Mining in Ganga river bed and its highest flood and plain area have also been banned vide this judgment.
Two major causes can be highlighted for the rationale in this judgment:
One is the obvious lack of political will on the part of the states – Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand to protect the rivers and co-operate with the Central government on this. The other is the growing belief that if urgent measures and a clear framework are not put firmly into place, India will lose these rivers forever and dirt and lack of political will eventually triumph over the existence of these rivers.
For those of you who are curious to know more, check out some key observations made by the Uttarakhand High Court in this judgment:
1. Rivers Ganges and Yamuna are worshipped by Hindus – these rivers are very sacred and revered. The Ganga is also called ”Maa Ganga” and finds mention in ancient Hindu scriptures including the Rig Veda.
2. All the Hindus have deep spiritual connection with the rivers Ganga and Yamuna and they collectively connect with these rivers.
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3. Rivers Ganga and Yamuna are central to the existence of half of Indian population and their health and well-being.
4. The rivers have provided both physical and spiritual sustenance to all of us from time immemorial.
5. Rivers Ganga and Yamuna have spiritual and physical sustenance. They support and assist both the life and natural resources and health and well-being of the entire community.
6. Rivers Ganga and Yamuna are breathing, living and sustaining the communities from mountains to the sea. To protect the recognition and the faith of the society, rivers Ganga and Yamuna are required to be declared as legal persons/living persons.
Given the lack of response by the state governments Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, the Uttarakhand High Court has directed the Central government to constitute a Ganga Management Board, as per section 80 of the Act.
This is a time-bound direction, which means that the Ganga Management Board has to be functional within three months. Further, the Central Government has been directed to induct the Uttarakhand as a member of the Upper Yamuna Board.
Now you must be wondering – why constitute a Ganga Management Board? This is a judgment that persuades all of us to look at the problem more seriously.
According to the Uttarakhand High Court judgment, the constitution of the Ganga Management Board is necessary to support activities such as irrigation, rural and urban water supply, hydropower generation, navigation and industry, among other things.
In this context, the High Court judgment reads: ”There is utmost expediency to give legal status as living person/legal entity to Rivers Ganga and Yamuna r/w Arts. 48-A and 51A (g) of the Constitution of India.”
The judgment has also announced that the Director of NAMAMI Gange, Chief Secretary of Uttarakhand and Advocate General of the state will be treated as persons in loco parentis to protect, conserve and preserve the rivers and their tributaries. Clearly, the court is leaving no stone unturned to ensure that the judgment is not merely understood and interpreted but also implemented with the seriousness it deserves by the concerned authorities.
As a nation that is awakening to the importance of preserving and protecting the environment and our natural resources, it is not enough to merely offer lip service. This is why the Uttarakhand High Court judgment sends out an urgent wake-up call to all of us – particularly the states and its concerned officials.
We need to open our minds to new possibilities that offer a clear legal framework to ensure the protection of our rivers. Instead of letting our rivers Ganga and Yamuna turn filthy and continue to be dirtied, the judgment propels us to protect and work towards its preservation as part of our nation’s heritage and build it to a point where every Indian can look towards these rivers as the nation’s pride.