Thursday, May 23, 2024

River as Legal person & Rights of Rivers

Story of rivers-1

We pollute rivers, convert them into canals, obstruct them to divert, finally we kill them and use the land for something else. It is the plight of rivers in India. Waterman of India Rajinder Singh has shown how the Mumbai city administrators have raised walls on either-side of a river that runs through the city making it a canal. After this, people started dumping the garbage into it, it became a drainage canal. That is the achievement of a great civilization. 

The Gujarat High Court in a recent order was criticizing the industrial units, which were found to have discharged pollutants into the Sabarmati river in Gujarat and suggested that they should not be provided water and power. The HC also wanted that such units should also be penalized, named and shamed. All such polluting units will also be banned from participating in any industrial fair, public-private partnership events, etc, the court added. The two-judge bench of Justice B Pardiwala and Justice Vabhavi D Nanavati had taken suo motu cognizance of the slow death of the river due to effluent discharge.

Rivers are our lifeline

The Sabarmati originates in the Dhebar lake situated in the southern part of the Aravalli range in the Udaipur district of Rajasthan. It flows in a south-western direction, passing through Udaipur in Rajasthan and Sabarkantha, Mehsana, Gandhinagar, Ahmedabad and Anand districts of Gujarat. After traveling about 371 km, it falls into the Gulf of Khambhat.

Gujarat Bench of High Court said: “In our Constitution, water resources are held in public trust. We have to use the ‘Public Trust Doctrine’ to apply stringent provisions against permitting municipal bodies or industries from polluting rivers”.

The Court cautioned: Rivers are our lifeline since we are completely dependent on them for our existence. The major reason behind this alarming situation is our utter ignorance and carefree attitude towards our environment and maintaining rivers and riversides. So, it is high time that we take some stringent actions in this regard. Each and every individual should understand that rivers belong to all of us. It is a joint responsibility of each and every individual to keep them clean.

The Court commented: “It is very sad that rivers have become a common pool for pollution for all”.

The court constituted a joint task force, in which the petitioner Prajapati is also a member.  He told that Sabarmati river, for 120 km of its 371 km course, is in its death throes. This is especially true for the stretch of the river along the Sabarmati riverfront in Ahmadabad. The excessive presence of pollutants in the river and the lack of natural flow has done irreparable damage to the river.

This happened because of building of walls on either side of the river, which converted it into a canal.

River as God

In India, the most ancient human society with great culture and civilization, recognizes the Idol of Sri Krishna or Rama or Venkateswara as ‘person’. In Badarinath, two hills are worshipped as Nara and Narayana. In Naimisharanya, the forest itself is recognized as the God. River Ganga or any other in India is worshipped as the living God. From 2008 the world started recognizing rivers as living entities rather than mere property of human beings. In 2008 Ecuador constitutionally recognized rights of the nature.

In 2017, a Constitutional Court in Colombia, has in its adjudication, recognized the rights of the Atrato river. In our nation a court in Uttarakhand recognized the Ganga and Yamuna rivers as legal persons with rights. But this recognition was later stayed.

One year back the International Union for the Conversation of Nature IUCN World Conservation Congress launched Universal Declaration of the Rights of Rivers. This declaration is a civil society initiative to define the basic rights of rivers.

The international community has agreed to accord the rights for the Boulder Creek watershed in the United States, the Magpie river in Canada, waterways in Orange County in the US, the Alpayacu river in Ecuador and the Paraná river and its wetlands in Argentina. From 40 countries 211 organizations and as many as 1700 individuals have pledged their support to protect rights of rivers.

In El Salvador people campaigned to protect Lempa river, in Nigeria for Ethiope river, the Indus River in Pakistan and for the Frome river in United Kingdom.

Litigations for protection of right

There are several litigations for protection of right of the Dulcepamba river. Piatua river and Nangaritza river. The declaration formed basis claim to protect Maranon river in Peru.

It is calculated that only 37 per cent of rivers longer than 1,000 km still flow freely due to dams being built on them. River protective activists have vehemently voiced for recognition and protection of rights for Rivers and conserve the nature.


Prof. M. Sridhar Acharyulu
Prof. M. Sridhar Acharyulu
Author is Dean, Professor of law at Mahindra University at Hyderabad and former Central Information Commissioner. He published a number books in English and Telugu.


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