On March 20, the Uttarakhand High Court ruled that the Ganga and Yamuna, and their tributaries, have rights as a ‘juristic/ legal person/ living entity’. Five days before this, the New Zealand Parliament passed into law the Te Awa Tupua Bill, which gives the Whanganui river and ecosystem legal personality, guaranteeing its ‘health and well-being’.
But can a river have human rights? If the most fundamental human right is that to life, what does it mean for a river? An obvious implication is that it should not be irretrievably polluted. But what about dams? Can a river be blocked? Can it be diverted to a point where there is virtually no water flowing in long stretches of the river, as is the case with the Ganga? And what about creatures like that Gangetic dolphin, a rare glimpse of which we got on our boat trip near Bhagalpur—do they have rights as part of the river ecosystem? How can a river or its constituents, with no voice of their own, ensure such rights, or demand justice should they be violated? Who would be the beneficiary of compensatory action?