Close on the heels of New Zealand declaring its river, Whanganui, a legal person—this came after 150 years of lobbying by the Maoris of Whanganui who consider the river an ancestor—the Uttarakhand High Court has done the same for the Ganga and the Yamuna. The court rebuked the government for focusing on the “non-existent Saraswati” while the Ganga and the Yamuna suffered. The court does seem to have a point—while various cleaning efforts have been mounted for both rivers, little has come of it. While 12 million litres per day (mld) of sewage is generated in the Ganga basin, there is at present a sewage treatment capacity of just 4,000 mld. Some 260 mld of toxic industrial effluents (pesticides, heavy metals, cyanides, etc) too flow into the river. Against this backdrop, only 149 mld of sewage treatement capacity has been created as of January 2017 under the National Mission for Clean Ganga. Similarly, as per news reports, dissolved oxygen levels are near-zero at several points on the course of the Yamuna in the National Capital Region.
How the change in status will change things for rivers is not exactly clear—does it mean a deliberate act of polluting them will be treated on a par with causing grievous hurt to a person, or will only the main stem be treated as a legal person, and not the tributaries? What happens to the flood-plains that are crucial to the health of a river? The hope is that parties will think twice before polluting the rivers, given they now enjoy the same status as a living, breathing citizen. But it has to be said it is fanciful to expect that what divinity—both Ganga and the Yamuna are accorded the status of lesser Gods in Hindu mythology—couldn’t ensure for them, assumed-corporeal status will.