Environment, News

Indian Court accords human status to River Ganga

LITERALLY PERSONIFIED. Court gives legal ‘human’ status to the holy river Ganga along with court- designated legal parents.

The 2013 Kumbh Mela on the bank of river Ganga was the largest gathering of humanity with over 120 million pilgrims visiting. The gathering was so huge that the crowd was visible from space.

On 20th March 2017, the High Court of the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand  accorded the status of “living human entities” to rivers Ganga and Yamuna. Ganga and Yamuna are two of India’s most sacred rivers.

“Holy rivers Ganga and Yamuna have been declared to be treated as a living human entities.”:  Justices Rajeev Sharma , Alok Singh, Division Bench, Uttarakhand High Court

the Whanganui River on the North Island of New Zealand (Photographer: James Shook)

Drawing inspiration from New Zealand. The Bench cited the example of river Whanganui in New Zealand which has been given such status. On March 15 2017, in a world-first the Whanganui river was granted the same legal rights as possessed by a  human being. Upholding the principle of ecological integrity, the local Māori tribe who  inhabit  the vales of Whanganui  have been fighting  for the recognition of their river as an ancestor for 140 years. The native Māori tribe accounts for about 15 percent of the total  population of New Zealand.  The new status of the river means that if someone abused or harmed the river, the law would now see no difference between harming the tribe or harming the river because they are one and the same. The New Zealand court ordered for the appointment of two “legal guardians” who would be acting on behalf of the Whanganui river. The guardians would be appointed one each  from the crown and the local tribe.

Legal Parents. the High Court in Uttarakhand has ordered that the head of a federally funded river cleaning programme -called Namami Gange- would act as the legal parent of the river. The Chief Secretary  and the Advocate General of the State have also been ordered  to act as the “legal parents” of the holy rivers. The three have been made  responsible and accountable  to conserve and preserve the two rivers and their tributaries.

In February of 2017, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) which is  an administrative tribunal dedicated to green issues  had criticised the federal government for “wasting public money” in the name of the Namami Gange Project. “Not a single drop of River Ganga has been cleaned so far,” the tribunal had told the government then.

The executive is bound to “uphold the status” of the two rivers and also promote their “health and well being”: the Uttarakhand High Court.

Leading the Green activism: the Supreme Court of India

Wide spread mining and quarrying in Uttarakhand state. The matter before the state’s highest court  related to rampant and large scale  mining  of sand and stone crushing  along the banks of the River Ganga which has for decades been destroying the sensitive ecology of the region.
The rampant and largely unregulated quarrying activities in the picturesque hills of this Himalayan state thrives through a well oiled network of politicians- businessmen- bureaucrats and local media. Alarmed at the deteriorating ecology, the Supreme Court of INDIA  has been actively intervening to remedy the situation and has shown great seriousness since the 1990s. But despite the Apex Court’s activism-including placing ban on any quarrying activity in the ecologically fragile zones of the state-  implementation gaps are far to widespread.

River Ganga, a deity for a civilisation. Reverentially referred to as Maa Ganga (Mother Ganga) for the water it provides to millions and fertile plains it feeds, the 2,500km river originates from Gangotri in Uttarakhand. River Ganga and her numerous tributaries are the lifeline of the Indo- Gangetic Plains. These monotonous plains stretch from Delhi in the north to Kolkata in the east. River Ganga meanders through plains in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal which are home to four hundred million (40 crore) humans! One of the world’s largest river systems, the River Ganga is the holiest river in the Indian cultural civilisation and in the Hindu religious mythologies. However the lamentable reality is that the Ganga river basin is also among the most polluted, with toxic industrial waste and untreated sewage reducing it to a dirty trickle all along its course.

Environmental Activism in the hills of Uttarakhand. The province of Uttarakhand has been one of the earliest theatre of political action by local population to protect the fragile hills and pristine forests of the state.

The power of ecofeminist. The Chipko Movement, 1973. Uttarakhand, India

During the world famous Chipko Movement of the 1970s (chipko a Hindi word literally means to stick or to hug), local women bravely took on the forest-contractor mafia.  The sari clad women, many with small toddlers tied to their back,  literally hugged the trees to stop the licence contractors from axing the pristine forests. Local ecology is intricately interwoven in the life of the hard working women of  the Garhwal and the Kumaon regions from requirements of drinking water to wood for fuel.

However international focus and funds, both public as well as from international non government  organisations, has led to mushrooming NGO industry around ecological issues. While the awareness  for wiser ecological conservation and protection has been on the rise, the deterioration continues.

It is hoped that the court’s directives will  be a wake up call for the authorities to take concrete measures and action to prevent continued ecological degradation in the Himalayan state.

(About the present matter before the court. The historic and momentous court order has been delivered on a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by Uttarakhand’s Haridwar district resident Mr Mohammad Salim. The High Court ordered the Dehradun District Magistrate, a public servant, to remove encroachment from the Shakti canal of the Ganga at Dhakrani in the next 72 hours. A visibly angry court also ordered that the public official be suspended if he failed to comply with the directive.)

(News desk, Uncolumn)

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