Declaring river as living entity


In a recent judgment, the Uttarakhand High Court declared the rivers Yamuna and Ganga as legal or juridical persons, enjoying all the rights, duties and liabilities of a “living person”. SC stays Uttarakhand HC order on Ganga, Yamuna living entity status because it raised several legal and administrative issues.

Even though majority of the Indian population considers the rivers as Goddesses the pollution in the rivers increase day by day. The name of the ministry has renamed as Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation. This much importance is given by the Government.


Indian courts have granted this status to temple deities, religious books, corporations, etc., but it is for the first time that an element of the natural environment has been declared a legal person. And it is not just the two rivers but all their tributaries, streams, every natural water body flowing continuously or intermittently of these rivers will enjoy this status.

International Examples

  1. While the idea of a river being recognised as a ‘living entity’ might be new to India, nature having legal rights is a concept already codified in countries like Ecuador and New Zealand.
  2. Ecuador actually became the first country to recognise the ‘Rights of Nature’ in its Constitution.
  3. It was only a few days ago that New Zealand’s Whanganui River won personhood rights.


  1. Rivers are important for the country’s development because water from the rivers is a basic natural resource essential for various human activities and countries economic growth. Rivers provides irrigation, navigation, healthy ecology and environment and livelihood.
  2. But these days Water pollution is a major environmental issue in India and the world. The largest source of water pollution in India is untreated sewage and other sources of pollution include agricultural runoff and unregulated small scale industry outlets, encroachments for canals and indeed, the diversion of water, construction of dams, sand mining, and appropriation of flood banks for commercial activities. So this move by High court is welcome one.

Case about:

  1. The two issues before the High Court emerged after petition filed by Lalit Miglan in Lalit Miglan vs Uttarakhand government, (a)Removal of illegal constructions on the banks of a canal in Dehradun.(b)Division of water resources between Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand.
  2. In December 2016, the High Court directed the removal of the constructions. It also directed the constitution of the Ganga Management Board (a statutory body under the U.P. Reorganisation Act 2000), and prohibited mining of the Ganga riverbed and its highest flood plain area. On the issue of resource division, the court directed the Central government to notify the settlement reached by the two States in a time-bound manner. Failure to all these led HC to declare two rivers as living persons.

Implications of this move

  1. Two rivers now be treated as legal person so their rights legally protected and not be harmed/destroyed.
  2. Enables “nature” to go to court.
  3. Ensures responsibility of appointed guardian (in this case Director General of Namami gange project, state chief secretary and Advocate General) to protect its rights.
  4. Enforces sense of responsibility over state administration, citizens and nation as whole.


  1. There is still a big question about whether these types of legal rights are relevant or appropriate for nature at all.
  2. Enforcing legal rights for nature therefore requires not only legal standing, but also adequate funding and access to legal expertise.
  3. In India need to set up completely new organisations to enforce the rights.
  4. Clear specifications of roles and responsibilities of guardians-How will they decide which rights to enforce, and when? Who can hold them to account for those decisions?


River is a living ecosystem both scientifically and biologically so giving living status of person is a step in right direction. Now it is the Centre and the states and peoples to study the legal and political implications of the Uttarakhand court order and take remedial action if their interests are adversely affected.


Q.) In a recent judgment, the Uttarakhand High Court declared the rivers Yamuna and Ganga as legal or juridical persons, enjoying all the rights, duties and liabilities of a “living person”. What are the implications of such a move and what challenges need to be faced in implementing such a decision?


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