New Zealand and India: Rivers recognizes as legal persons

Two sacred rivers in India were recently granted the status of legal persons. The supreme court of the North Indian state of Uttarakhand (where the source of the Ganges is located) deemed the river Ganges and its tributary to be living beings with the status of legal persons, including all corresponding rights.

New Zealand has also taken this step − not for the first time − by recognizing the Whanganui River as a legal person. Two guards now have the authority to claim rights on the river’s behalf. For more than 140 years, the Maori tribes who live on this river have been fighting for recognition of the river as their ancestor and as a proper living being.

The two Indian judges Rajeey Sharma and Alok Singh explained that this step had become necessary because the holy river Ganges was in mortal danger.
The Ganges is not only the longest river in India, but above all the dirtiest. Industrial waste threatens all life. Many Indians believe that the water of the Ganges has sacred, healing properties and regularly take ritual baths in the river.

The judges also felt compelled to take this step because the states downstream on the Ganges refused to cooperate in environmental matters.

Their decision came a few days after New Zealand had granted the rights of a legal person to the Whanganui River, the first river in the world to receive this status. The Indian judgment refers to this decision in its argumentation, and designates three persons charged with the responsibility for representing the river’s rights.

The Whanganui on New Zealand's North Island is considered sacred by the Maori people living there, and as their ancestor. Now the river can be represented in court by two guards. Minister Chris Finlayson, who led New Zealand's negotiations on the matter, points out: “I know that some may find it bizarre to grant personal rights to a natural resource − but it’s the same as with family foundations, companies or associations.”

“We have taken this step because we have always considered this river to be our ancestor,” explains Gerrard Albert, chief negotiator for the Whanganui tribe. “We have fought to achieve legal status for the river so that everyone can understand that, in our view, the river is a living entity, an indivisible whole, contrary to the traditional model of the past 100 years where the river has been regarded from the perspective of property and management.”

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