The spirit behind the ruling is more important than the legal battles to be fought to clear their banks of encroachments.
A billion Indians consider the Ganga and its major tributary Yamuna as sacred rivers, whose waters have miraculous powers. The Uttarakhand high court has gone further, granting the rivers the same legal rights as a human being. It seems to have been inspired by a New Zealand ruling on the Maoris’ sacred river Whanganui. As “living entities”, these rivers will have legal rights against those who pollute or harm them. Significantly, they will also have the right to property, so that encroachments and illegal constructions can be more effectively dealt with.
Will these new rights lead to a cleanup of the rivers, a project that has made little headway in 30 years since first proposed by Rajiv Gandhi? With the economy growing, the rivers have only got dirtier with city sewage and industrial effluents as leading polluters, besides farm pesticides. The Yamuna stagnated at points where it no longer supports aquatic life, and the notoriety of the Ganga’s ghats pushing half-burnt corpses into the river is something Indian society refuses to even reconsider.
As a water-challenged nation having to fight for every drop to support an ever-increasing population, India has a great responsibility to look after its rivers. The spirit behind the ruling is more important than the legal battles to be fought to clear their banks of encroachments. To treat rivers in a holistic way is something that should be ingrained into all those who live near them or enjoy their largesse in terms of water supply. If they are held sacred, they must be kept pristine after being cleaned up.