Monday, 27 March 2017

What’s law got to do with it? Cleaning up the holy Ganga - written by Anjana Varma

My mother is nearly 62 years old. But if you meet her, you will see that she’s got the fiery nature of a young backpacking traveler whose restless strides have taken her the world over. On a recent phone call I had with her, I asked her ‘so where next? Paris? Singapore? What do you want to see?’ She replied, ‘Closer to home, I want to go to Varanasi and do Ganga darshan’. In Hinduism, darshan literally means to have an auspicious sight of a deity or a holy person. It was heartwarming to see that after nearly 30 years of having lived all over the world, nothing held more meaning to her than to make a pilgrimage to the holy city of Varanasi, which stands on the banks of perhaps the most sacred river for Hindus, the Ganga (or Ganges).

Aside from the fact that it is a lifeline for nearly 500 million people living along its banks, most Hindus pay homage to the river by taking a dip in the water as a means of atonement, paying respect to their ancestors whose ashes have been released into the water, offering it flowers and clay oil lamps. Small quantities of water from the river are used in rituals, and offered to loved ones for purification. Its ecological, symbolic, and religious importance is undeniable.

Yet today, it flows through the veins of the country as one of the five most polluted rivers of the world.

I spoke to my mother after her trip to Varanasi, which is also one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, and asked her how it went. She was overwhelmed by the beauty, the history, the devotion of people, and the sanctity of the place. However, she was devastated by the pollution she witnessed.

This is why coming across the news that a state court in India had given the Ganga River (and its largest tributary, Yamuna River) the legal status as the ‘first living entity of India’ a few days ago, made me – quite simply – hopeful.

Much like New Zealand court’s ruling giving the Whanganui River a legal status, this too is a landmark judgment with far reaching implications. Giving a river the legal status of a living entity means that, much like people and incorporated companies, it has a right to defend itself. Through court appointed individuals, the river’s ‘rights’ can be represented in court allowing for greater accountability for inaction.

What perhaps often goes unnoticed is the significant role that law plays in the realm of environment and development. As someone who works in the Law Division at UN Environment, I certainly see it, and I am one of its biggest advocates (pun very much intended), as are my colleagues (it’s akin to preaching to the choir).

I would like to give you an example of the power of law and institutions: last year, a 16-year-old student filed a request under the Right to Information Act – which requires the government to respond to a citizen’s query within 30 days – to know the status of a major cleaning programme for the Ganga River. Much to her dismay and many, many others, it became public knowledge that despite millions of rupees being allocated to the cleanup – in reality – very little has been done. Law enables that transparency and accountability of the government to its citizens. When it comes to the environment, now more than ever, this is vital.

I told my mother about the ruling soon after the news, and she said: ‘that’s really great – maybe in my next trip there, I may even take a dip in the water.’ 


  1. Let us request all the countries of the world , " Please declare at least one river of your country as a ' living human entity '" .

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  3. Agrred with your point of view but situation is more critcle than your imagination. Giving legal status to Ganga is welcome step, nothing worng with it. But , Will it save Ganga? how? It is big question beacuse neither govt of India or state Govt of states through which Ganga flow are serious at all. Their activities are proof for that which you can see any time, whenever you come to India, if and only if you don't visit problem area with Govt officials. Adding to this, problem of Ganga has been incresed with time, now its polluted dying Gang because illegal encroachment and Dams.

  4. I am overwhelmed by this declaration. However, the question is whether the religious institutions are ready to take the reforms and the State is ready to take warranted action including the necessary legal actions. A few days back Yamuna & yesterday Gangotri & Yamunotry have been declared as Living entities. I hope it will not become mere a fashionable trend without an effective design.

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