The rights of rivers

Despite drawbacks, a pioneering court judgment provides an opportunity to clean up vital rivers
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An estimated 1 billion gallons of waste flows into the Ganges every day.
There is a need to change cultural attitudes which have long held the Ganges to have self-purifying properties.

History was made recently when a court recognized the rivers Ganges and Yamuna as a living entity. This affords opportunities to tackle problems related to water and climate change sustainably amid the rapid melting of Himalayan glaciers, the depletion of groundwater resources, pollution of ground and surface water resources, erratic rainfall patterns that wreak havoc with human lives and property, and calamities like flash floods, landslides, avalanches and famines.

The high court of Uttarakhand, a Himalayan state in northern India, ruled on 20 March 2017 that “the Rivers Ganga and Yamuna, all their tributaries, streams, every natural water flowing with flow continuously or intermittently of these rivers, are declared as juristic/legal persons/living entities having the status of a legal person with all corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a living person in order to preserve and conserve river Ganga and Yamuna.”

Both rivers are highly polluted. An estimated more than 1 billion gallons of waste flows into the Ganges alone every day from sewer drains, leather tanneries, squat toilets, and elsewhere. The Yamuna, its main tributary, is also tainted with sewage and industrial pollution and has stagnated in some places. Some experts say most of the sewage treatment plants near the rivers are not functioning as they were designed to.
Skeptics point out that the high court’s decision cannot stop the discharge of waste to the Ganges and Yamuna immediately. Even the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambitious Namami Gange (Obeisance to the Ganges) cleanup campaign has met with mixed success. Claims that industrial pollution has already fallen by a third since its launch are contradicted by reports from media on the ground. Some experts have attributed the failure of official campaigns to neglect of the management of river basins, lack of governance of water resources and non-participation by local communities.

Restoring Europe’s Rhine, which is half the length of the Ganges, took almost three decades and reportedly cost $45 billion. Yet the budget for Namami Gange is about $3 billion over five years and money allocated since 2014 has been only partially spent.

Environmental activists point out that merely announcing that the Ganges and Yamuna, are a living entity will not save them and say that officials, polluters and citizens need to act in unison to clean up the rivers and stop further pollution. Our foundation's ground-level experience garnered as a public awareness and participation partner in the Clean Ganga Action Plan at Varanasi has revealed a dire need for capacity building among all stakeholders in order to keep the river free from pollution. There is a need for specific emphasis on changing cultural attitudes, which have long held the Ganges to have self-purifying properties.

Many environmental activists and legal experts also point out that both central government and the states through which the rivers flow have enacted laws to deal with pollution, and question how granting them the status of a juridical person is going to solve the problem. This also raises the question as to whether both the rivers have been suffering for want of legal protection or lack of ability to initiate action against polluters. They also emphasize the need to examine whether the high court, by appointing guardians to sue polluters on behalf of the rivers, has unwittingly enabled victims of pollution and other damage to sue for compensation.

Furthermore, some legal experts say the high court judgment was myopic in granting guardianship of the rivers only to Uttarakhand, along with central government, while ignoring the interests of other states through which they flow. The Ganges flows for 2,525 km through Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal, with just 96 km in Uttarakhand, while just a small part of the 1,376 km Yamuna – which also runs through, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh – is in the state.

Despite all this skepticism about its impact, the high court’s decision does reflect a sense of urgency in endeavoring to rescue two very important rivers from rampant pollution. It provides an opportunity to lay down the foundations for progressive and democratic legislation which recognizes that the rivers are commons and need to be seen as an integrated whole rather than owned and managed in pieces by different agencies – and that there must be democratic representation and participation by the communities whose lives are linked with them.

Thus there is an opportunity to be seized by all stakeholders in pushing for a deeper, wider dialogue, and for appropriate legislation to transform the challenge of pollution into an opportunity to restore the pristine glory of these, and other, rivers.