In a judgment that referred to Ganga river as “Ganga Maa” and deliberated on the nature of God, the Uttarakhand High Court has declared Ganga and Yamuna and their tributaries “juristic/legal persons/living entities having the status of a legal person”. The judgment, which was delivered Monday by the division bench of Justice Rajiv Sharma and Justice Alok Singh, came during the hearing of a PIL related to division of properties between Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. The high court based its argument on the religious value of the rivers and cited several Supreme Court decisions that stated that “a Hindu idol is a juristic entity capable of holding property and of being taxed” through those “who are entrusted with the possession and management of its property”.
“Rivers Ganges and Yamuna are worshipped by Hindus,” the court said, underlining that “according to Hindu beliefs, a dip in River Ganga can wash away all the sins”. “The Ganga is also called ‘Ganga Maa’,” it added. Noting that “there is utmost expediency to give legal status as a living person/legal entity to Rivers Ganga and Yamuna r/w Articles 48-A and 51A(g) of the Constitution of India,” the court ruled that “the Rivers Ganga and Yamuna, all their tributaries, streams, every natural water flowing with flow continuously or intermittently of these rivers, are declared as juristic/legal persons /living entities having the status of a legal person with all corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a living person in order to preserve and conserve river Ganga and Yamuna”. “The extraordinary situation has arisen since Rivers Ganga and Yamuna are losing their very existence,” the court said, noting that “this situation requires extraordinary measures.”
Deliberating on the nature of God, it observed: “God is Omnipotent and Omniscient and its presence is felt not by reason of a particular form or image but by reason of the presence of the omnipotent.” The court also rapped UP and Uttarakhand for their failure to constitute the Ganga Management Board and asked the Chief Secretaries of both states to cooperate with the Centre. It noted that Virendra Sharma, Senior Joint Commissioner, Ministry of Water Resource & Ganga Rejuvenation, had revealed that despite long correspondence, neither UP nor Uttarakhand were cooperating with the Central Government.
On December 5, the court had directed the Centre to constitute the board “and make it functional” within “three months”. This is the first instance that a river has been granted a legal status in India. Also, this is among rare instances in the world that a river is given legal status of a juristic person. Earlier, the New Zealand Parliament, acknowledging rights of its native Maori people, had passed a Bill, declaring Whanganui river as a legal entity that has the right to represent itself through its representatives.