India's sacred Ganges and Yamuna rivers granted same legal rights as humans

MUMBAI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - An Indian court has declared the sacred Ganges and Yamuna rivers living entities, giving them the same legal rights as human beings, in a move analysts say may do little to protect them or keep them clean.

A Hindu pilgrim offers prayers after taking a dip in the Ganges river ahead of the one-day festival of Makar Sankranti, at Sagar Island, south of Kolkata, India January 13, 2017. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

The legal order comes just days after New Zealand declared its Whanganui river a living entity and appointed two guardians to protect its interests, making it the first river in the world to be given these rights.

The high court in India’s northern Uttarakhand state on Monday said the Ganges and its longest tributary, the Yamuna - both held sacred by millions of Hindus - have the right to be legally protected and not be harmed, and can be parties to disputes.

The court ordered that the two rivers be represented by the chief of the National Mission for Clean Ganga - a government body overseeing projects and conservation of the Ganges - as well as the state’s chief secretary and advocate general.

“This will help protect the rivers, as they now have all the constitutional and statutory rights of human beings, including the right to life,” said M.C. Pant, a lawyer for the public interest litigation against the state for inaction in clearing encroachments on the banks of the Yamuna.

The Ganges, a transboundary source of water for millions, flows more than 2,500 km (1,500 miles) from the Himalayas in northern India through Bangladesh to the Bay of Bengal.

Believed by Indians to have miraculous healing powers, the Ganges is also one of the world’s filthiest rivers, with tons of raw sewage and industrial waste dumped into it daily.

Several Indian governments have spent billions of dollars on efforts to clean the Ganges, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has vowed to restore the river to its former glory.

The court order, while drawing attention to the dismal state of the rivers, will do little to protect them, said Suresh Rohilla at the Centre for Science and Environment advocacy in New Delhi.

“It is the constitutional duty of every citizen to protect our natural resources, including rivers,” said Rohilla, an urban water management expert.

“We are failing in our duty, and we ignore other laws meant to protect our rivers. So simply giving the rivers greater rights does not automatically give them greater protection.”