MERCERSBURG, PA, USA: On March 20, the High Court of Uttarakhand at Naintal, in the State of Uttarakhand in northern India, issued a ruling declaring that the River Ganga and River Yumana are “legal persons/living persons.” This comes after numerous rulings by the court which found that while the rivers are “central to the existence to half of Indian population and their health and well being,” they are severely polluted, with their very existence in question.
The court declared that throughout India’s history, it has been necessary to declare that certain “entities, living inanimate, objects or things” to be declared a “juristic person.” In the case of the Ganga and Yumana, the court explained the time has come to recognize them as legal persons “in order to preserve and conserve” the rivers.
The movement to recognize certain legal rights of nature and particular ecosystems is growing. Beginning in 2006, the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) assisted the community of Tamaqua Borough, in the State of Pennsylvania in the United States, to draft and pass the very first rights of nature law in the world. CELDF has since assisted more than three dozen communities across the U.S., as well as the first country in the world – Ecuador – to secure the rights of nature to exist and flourish.
As efforts to advance legal rights of nature continue, CELDF has been partnering with India-based NGOs to recognize fundamental rights of the Ganga River and the entire river basin.
With the Global WASH Alliance-India and Ganga Action Parivar, CELDF drafted the proposed National Ganga River Rights Act. The Act would recognize fundamental rights of the Ganga to exist, flourish, evolve, and be restored, and the people of India to a healthy, thriving river ecosystem. The legislation is now under consideration by India Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, which in recent months established a committee within the Modi administration to review the Act.
In calling for significant legal change, in a February 2016 ruling – a precursor to this week’s ruling – the court stated, “The legislation, till now, has not helped to save Ganga. We need a comprehensive legislation at the national level dealing with the Ganga alone.”
With regard to the court’s ruling this week, Mari Margil, CELDF’s Associate Director and head of the organization’s International Center for the Rights of Nature, explained, “Recognition of personhood rights are an important step forward toward the recognition of the full rights of the rivers to be healthy, natural ecosystems.”
“Such rights would include the rights of the rivers to pure water, to flow, to provide habitat for river species, and other rights essential to the health and well-being of these ecosystems,” Margil explained. In local laws in the U.S., as well as in the Ecuador Constitution, rights of nature laws secure rights that are necessary to the ability of ecosystems to be healthy and thrive. These laws transform ecosystems from being considered resources available for human use, to living entities with inherent rights.
These laws have been passed as there is a growing recognition around the world that environmental laws premised on regulating the use of nature, are unable to protect nature. Margil stated, “The collapse of ecosystems and species, as well as the acceleration of climate change, are clear indications that a fundamental change in the relationship between humankind and the natural world is necessary.”
In a February 2016 ruling, the Uttarakhand court wrote, “All the rivers have the basic right to maintain their purity and to maintain free and natural flow.” Whether the court includes these rights within the scope of its recent “personhood” declaration is not clear, or whether courts will expand on the rights recognized this week remains to be seen, Margil explained.
The High Court of Uttarakhand’s ruling comes after the finalization of a settlement agreement between the Maori people and the government of New Zealand regarding the Whanganui River. In that settlement, finalized through a vote of the Parliament, the river is recognized as having personhood rights. CELDF believes that the movement in New Zealand and India to recognize certain rights of ecosystems are important in the growing movement to move away from legal systems which treat nature as property under the law, to laws which recognize inherent rights of nature.
Today, CELDF is partnering with communities and organizations across the United States, as well as in Nepal, India, Australia, Sweden, and other countries to advance rights of nature legal frameworks.
The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund’s mission is to build sustainable communities by assisting people to assert their right to local self-government and the rights of nature. CELDF’s International Center for the Rights of Nature is partnering with communities and organizations in countries around the world to advance the rights of nature.