Last month, a landmark judgment by the Uttarakhand High Court declared the rivers Ganga and Yamuna as legal persons. The verdict noted that these rivers have rights and duties. The judgment observed that a large number of Indians who are Hindus have deep aastha in these rivers. It went on to exalt the tremendous contribution made by these rivers to both physical and spiritual existence by holding that “they support and assist both the life and natural resources and health and well-being of the entire community”. The decision coincides with New Zealand’s decision to grant the Whanganui River (also known as Te Awa Tupua to the local Maori people) legal personhood. These are tremendous legal victories for environmentalists and indigenous communities, the world over.
Article 21 of the Constitution accords the the right to a healthy environment. Our right to life includes our right to a sound environment. However, the environment has no independent rights in the Indian legal system. While Eastern religions — Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and tribal cultures — have acknowledged the free will of the environment and animals, there has been a great difference between what is said, professed and practiced.
The movement for legal personhood for the environment and animals began in the 1970s. This concept was articulated by Christopher D. Stone in his thesis, Should Trees Have Standing. In this compelling piece, Stone makes an argument for the environment to have independent legal rights, much like what was granted by the judgment of the Uttarakhand High Court. He highlights how the theory of rights has developed over the years and that many inanimate objects have both rights and legal duties. They can sue and be sued. Corporations, trusts, municipal entities and joint ventures, for example, have legal rights. In India too, corporations, mutts, trusts and even idols can sue and be sued. The theory that natural communities and ecosystems must have their own independent legal rights was further espoused by Cormac Cullian in his book, Wild Law. While wild law sounds like an oxymoron, Cullian’s work inspired conferences and gatherings of environmentalists and indigenous communities, the world over.
While judicial decisions according animals and the environment independent rights are few and far between, decision-makers are increasingly stressing the need for such jurisprudence. In Argentina, the Association of Professional Lawyers for Animal Rights (AFADA) filed a case for a chimpanzee Cecilia to be released from the Mendoza Zoo arguing that her confinement was illegal and she must be rehabilitated in a sanctuary. The court ordered her rehabilitation. This is much like the case of Sundar, the elephant in Maharashtra who was released from custody and rehabilitated in a wildlife sanctuary.
Scientific studies have shown that animals are sentient. Nature is interlinked; the loss of one species will tremendously impact every other species including human beings. So, it is time to overhaul our conventional systems both in letter and spirit and include animal welfare and rights in decision-making processes.
Hindi acknowledges the gender of animals. But English does not. Referring to animals as “it” implies they are objects meant for human use. We must find ways to end the objectification of animals. Legislators, administrators, the judiciary and the media have an obligation to look beyond the conventional debate and pay heed to science, which has proved animals have feelings.
They have social structures, laugh, enjoy the company of one another and go into severe depression when denied the comfort of their fellow beings. Very often facing this truth involves challenging our culture and social mores. That is a difficult task. But our ability to look at the evidence, assess it and change our ways has ensured the survival of humankind. Respecting nature will lead to a robust ecosystem and a healthy planet.
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