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India grants holy rivers 'legal person' status

March 21, 2017

Two of the holiest rivers in India are each to be accorded the same legal status as human beings. A court ruled that the Ganges and Yamuna had a right to protection and that they could be parties to legal disputes.

Indien Kumbh Mela in Allahabad
Image: Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images

The high court of India's northern state of Uttarakhand, where the Ganges originates, declared the rivers "living entities having the status of a legal person" and all corresponding rights.

In making their ruling on Tuesday, judges Rajeey Sharma and Alok Singh said the unusual step was necessary because the sacred rivers were in danger of "losing their very existence."

The Ganges is the longest river in India and is revered as particularly holy, with many believing it has healing properties. It is used by many Indians - who consider it holy - for the scattering of ashes and for ritual bathing. However, the waterway is often also heavily polluted with untreated sewage and industrial effluent.

New Zealand influence

The case was brought after officials complained that the governments of Uttarakhand and the neighboring state of Uttar Pradesh were not cooperating with federal government efforts to protect the Ganges.

The decision comes just days after New Zealand granted similar rights to its own Whanganui River, which was the first river in the world to be granted such status. Indeed, in making their decision, the judges cited the ruling in New Zealand as part of their reasoning.

Cleaning of Ganges: Europe's help wanted

"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.

Custodians appointed

The court, which was sitting in the hill-resort town of Nainital, appointed three officials to act as legal custodians for the conservation and protection of the two rivers and their tributaries. It ordered that the Ganga Mangement Board be established to begin work within three months.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pledged to restore the Ganges to its former glory. The river is the most sacred in Hinduism and is a lifeline to millions.

The Yamuna is also highly venerated in Hinduism, and is seen as something of a twin to the Ganges, with the two running broadly parallel through the state of Uttar Pradesh before they merge. In mythology, Yamuna is the daughter of sun god Surya and sister of the god of death Yama.

rc/jm (Reuters, AFP)