Ganga as a 'Living Person': Will it help?

The Uttarakhand High Court ruling confers on rivers a right to be restored. But finally, it is a multi-stakeholder exercise.

With a view to conserve the rivers Ganga and Yamuna, the Uttarakhand High Court in its March 20, 2017 judgement, declared the two rivers as living entities having status of legal persons and having all corresponding rights, duties and liabilities. The judgement also identified three officials as the human face to protect, preserve and conserve these rivers, who are bound to promote their health and well being. The court also observed that the rivers are the source of physical and spiritual sustenance of people from time immemorial, that these ‘rivers are breathing, living and sustaining the communities from mountains to sea’ and that such declaration as legal persons is needed to protect the faith in of society. Following this precedent, the Madhya Pradesh government also took a decision in May this year to declare river ‘Narmada’ as a living person with all attendant rights.

It's happened elsewhere

Globally speaking, the above concept is not new. Prior to the Uttarakhand judgement, the New Zealand government declared the Whanganui River as a legal person. This move reflects the aspirations of the Whanganui Iwi indigenous people, since 1870. They not only relied on the river for their essential source of food, but held it as being a deep spiritual source as well. In fact the Crown in New Zealand exploited the river since 1880s, by establishing navigational schemes on the river, extracting minerals from the river bed, eroding the ecological quality, destroying aquatic features , and finally, degrading the river’s cultural and spiritual value. The New Zealand government not only declared the river Whanganui as a living person, but also provided a settlement of $80 million to redress various ‘actions and omissions’ in the past by the Crown, established a legal framework to support the Whanganui river, and created a Fund of $30 million to restore the river’s health.

Bestowing nature with rights can also be seen in a country such as Ecuador whose Constitution has a specific chapter on Rights of Nature. Under its Constitution, nature is subject to fundamental rights guaranteed, as applicable to natural persons. Nature is given the ‘right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, functions and its processes in revolution’. Nature has a right to restoration..

Phenomenal pollution

Given the above scenario, one may examine the implications of the High Court Judgement as applicable to rivers Ganga and Yamuna. Ganga is the fifth largest polluted river in the world. Yamuna is also polluted by the untreated wastes sourced from cities along its course, and industrial wastes generated alongside the river. The Ganga during its journey receives roughly 500 mld (million litres per day) of partly or totally untreated industrial effluents from 764 grossly polluted industries and about 300 mld effluents from urban bodies. Many drains discharging effluents into these two rivers exert huge organic load. The quality of river water is accordingly deteriorated. While organic load (i.e. BOD-biological oxygen demand) is reduced due to dilution, the high presence of faecal coliform bacteria was noticed in many segments of the river.

Post the High Court judgement, these two rivers can claim ‘right to life’ following the Fundamental Rights provisions of the Indian Constitution, and can theoretically enforce the same. This is relevant from the perspective of preventing pollution of the river and also of aquatic mammalian species such as Gangetic dolphins, which inhabit it, and are fast vanishing. Other aquatic life in the river is also increasingly threatened. Providing a sustainable ecosystem is the need of the hour. The polluters who are liable to be sanctioned in court proceedings are however many: industrial units, municipal authorities, local bodies, millions of villages, and so on. This is definitely a vast challenge.

The question is: will the new step ensure clean water in the two rivers or deter the polluters from further polluting the rivers? There are many challenges. There are millions of players who are involved in the complex process. The industries and utilities of local bodies are the point sources of pollution and millions of farmers alongside the rivers are the non- point sources of pollution..

Nailing accountability

The challenges before the policy makers are many: how to bring all the players on the same page for not polluting the rivers. For instance, the industrial units should discharge industrial effluents into rivers after proper treatment or even take steps for ‘Zero liquid discharge’ . The regulatory machinery for ensuring the same has weak capacity to deliver today. 'Online data monitoring' at sewage discharge points of an industrial unit or utility has been thought of, but its proper implementation is a big challenge.

Similarly, in the case of local bodies, it is often difficult to prevent the municipal sewage from polluting the river water. In a country where open defecators pose the biggest challenge, absence of proper sewer network and subsequent non-treatment of municipal sewage, especially in urban areas, aggravate the problem in the context of polluting the river Ganga and Yamuna. In this context, the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan programme is a right step forward, but its lesser emphasis on faecal sludge management is a matter of concern.

As far as cleaning of rivers is concerned, there exists political will at least at the central level, but its absence has been noticed in all States through which the two rivers flow. Overall, the perception is that only governments are mandated or supposed to ensure clean rivers. The public at large, civil societies, and industrial stakeholders, are important stakeholders for achieving such objectives.

Attention should also be given to reviewing the existing policy and legislative initiatives: for example, adoption and implementation of laws such as the Uttarakhand Flood Zoning Act 2012 by the participating States would also help in restoring the health of the rivers by creating ‘room’ for them.

Nevertheless, the Uttarakhand court’s judgement is an important step in the right direction for ensuring clean rivers. Only time will fully tell as to its specific impact.