Sacred Rivers in India, New Zealand Granted Legal Personhood

March 31, 2017
Whanganui River

Last week, India became the second nation this month to grant legal personhood status to a river, raising ethical and practical questions about how to regulate environmental protections.

As of Monday, March 20, the Ganges river and its main tributary, the Yamuna, will be accorded the rights and responsibilities of a living person. The rivers are the first non-human entities to be granted such a status, The Guardian reported.

The crux of the decision was the question of how to acknowledge the role the Ganges plays in the spiritual lives of over a billion Indians. The Ganges takes its name from the Hindu goddess Ganga, and the water itself is considered holy in the Hindu tradition.

The Ganges and Yamuna rivers are also some of the most polluted bodies of water in the world. Previous efforts to clean the rivers of human and industrial waste “hadn’t brought results,” said Suresh Kumar Rohilla, an urban water management expert. Water from the Yamuna, which supplies drinking water to Delhi’s 19 million residents, has to undergo chemical treatment before it can be safely consumed.

Last Monday’s decision effectively made it illegal to pollute the Ganges and Yamuna rivers, but many are uncertain about how the new policy will be enforced.

“There are already 1.5 billion litres of untreated sewage entering the river each day, and 500 million litres of industrial waste,” Himanshu Thakkar, an engineer for the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers, and People, told The Guardian. “All of this will become illegal with immediate effect, but you can’t stop the discharge immediately. So how this decision pans out in terms of practical reality is very unclear.”

Uncertain, too, are the ethical implications of according legal personhood to a non-human entity. Like humans, the rivers now have rights—including, presumably, the right to not be polluted. Last week’s ruling identified several legal guardians that will be permitted to advocate on the rivers’ behalf. But do rivers have responsibilities?

A lawyer at the Indian Supreme Court argued that, unlike entities that have trusts, it will be difficult to determine how to hold the Ganges “responsible” for misconduct.

“A religious trust can both sue and be sued. Who is going to sue a river—if it runs dry, if it is polluted, if it floods?” the anonymous lawyer told India Climate Dialogue.

Canadian bioethicist and environmentalist George Dvorsky questioned whether defining a river as a person will bring about the respect and change in conduct that activists desire.

“Instead of referring to rivers as persons, a better idea would be to develop standards that are specific to the resources being protected,” Dvorsky said. “Environmentalists and lawmakers should be writing legislation that’s innovative, effective, enforceable, and specific to the object being protected, while instilling an ethos that decries the desecration of the natural world.”

In their decision, the Indian Supreme Court cited a similar case in early March. New Zealand became the first nation in the world to bestow legal personhood upon a river. The Whanganui River—considered a sacred ancestor and life source by the Māori people—will henceforth be considered under New Zealand law to be a single living being, “from the mountains to the sea, incorporating its tributaries and all its physical and metaphysical elements,” Al Jazeera reported.

While New Zealand faces many of the same practical and legal concerns as India in the enforcement of the ruling, the Māori people rejoiced at the ruling after over 140 years of campaigning for such a recognition. A common Māori saying, “Ko au te awa. Ko te awa ko au,” declares, “I am the river and the river is me.”

“It’s not that we’ve changed our worldview, but people are catching up to seeing things the way that we see them,” said Adrian Rurawhe, a Māori member of Parliament.

Chris Finlayson, New Zealand Minister for Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations, said that the unorthodox ruling was worth acknowledging the role the river plays in the Māori people’s faith tradition.

“This legislation recognizes the deep spiritual connection between the Whanganui Iwi and its ancestral river, and creates a strong platform for the future of Whanganui River,” he said.

--by Caroline Matas

Image Source: Whanganui River. Photo by Jason Pratt, Flickr Creative Commons.