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The Uttarakhand high court has recognized that the Ganga and the Yamuna as well as their tributaries and sister bodies shall now have the status of a legal person and shall be so-called living entities, giving the rivers that have seen years of damage at the hands of humans, a legal voice along with all corresponding rights, duties and liabilities.

The court said that the order is a way to ensure "preservation and conservation of the two rivers and to protect the recognition and faith of society".

A division bench of Justices Alok Singh and Rajiv Sharma noted that "the extraordinary situation has arisen since the rivers Ganga and the Yamuna are losing their very existence". 

The court’s recognition of the rivers has come days after New Zealand passed a bill according a living entity status to its third largest river, Wanganui. The country passed a bill declaring the river as a living entity and appointed two guardians to protect its interests.

The legal experts explained that the status accorded to the Ganga and the Yamuna, would mean that if anyone was found polluting the rivers, it would amount to harming a human being. "By this order, the court has recognized 'fifth generation rights' which are not limited to humans but extend to the habitat. The order will give a new dimension to the laws framed for protection of the environment," said senior lawyer K H Gupta.

The court named the director of Namami Gange, the chief secretary of Uttarakhand and the advocate general of the state "persons in loco parentsi" -the human face representing the rivers.

"All the Hindus have deep 'astha' in the Ganga and the Yamuna and they collectively connect with these rivers spiritually. The rivers are central to the existence of half of the Indian population and their health and well being. They have provided both physical and spiritual sustenance to all of us from time immemorial," the judges said. 

The senior joint commissioner, ministry of water resources and Ganga rejuvenation made a startling revelation that "despite long correspondence, neither the state of UP nor the state of Uttarakhand are cooperating with the central government for the constitution of Ganga Management Board". This was noted by the judges while making the judgment.

The HC strictly ordered the central government to constitute the board and make it functional within a period of three months. The state government will not be given constant reminder that they are bound to obey the orders passed by the central government and if they fail to do so, they maybe ensued under Article 365 of the Indian Constitution.

The recognition given to the rivers is a strategic step taken by the judicial system towards the protection of the rivers. They have a spiritual significance in the country and as a result of numerous customary rites and rituals performed on them, the condition of the water has deteriorated to a great extent.

While it is just a river, it is sacred for the people in India who spiritually connect to the holy rivers, so it was important that the law needs to step in to protect it." 

Over 1500 million litres of raw sewage is discharged into the Ganga and Yamuna every day. This joins 500 million litres of industrial waste dumped by more than 700 highly polluting industries located along it. However, after this recognition legal right has been bestowed on the rivers and any harm to them shall now attract fine or penal punishments. 

Rohan Mahajan, Founder, LawRato.com. 

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