DEHRADUN (India) • Two of India's holiest but most polluted rivers have been recognised as a "legal person" in a landmark court ruling that could see the sacred waterways restored to health.
The decision to bestow legal standing to the Ganges and the Yamuna, one of its major tributaries, comes just days after New Zealand declared its Whanganui river a "living entity" and appointed two guardians to protect its interests, making it the first river in the world to be given these rights.
The highest court in Uttarakhand, the Himalayan state where the Ganges originates, late on Monday declared the rivers as "living entities having the status of a legal person" and all corresponding rights.
The court ordered that the two rivers be represented by the chief of the National Mission for Clean Ganga - a government body overseeing projects and conservation of the Ganges - as well as the state's chief secretary and advocate general.
The High Court in the resort town of Nainital said it took the unusual step because the hallowed rivers upon which Hindu rites are conducted were "losing their very existence".
"This situation requires extraordinary measures to preserve and conserve these rivers," the court said in its ruling.
The Ganges is India's longest and holiest river. But the waters in which pilgrims ritualistically bathe and scatter the ashes of their dead are heavily polluted with untreated sewage and industrial waste.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi campaigned in 2014 on a promise to revitalise the Ganges, even tasking a dedicated minister to the job, but results have been mixed three years on.
Mr M.C. Pant, the lawyer who argued the case in Uttarakhand, said past court efforts to protect the Ganges were done in the name of individual petitioners.
"Now, they can be filed in the name of the river itself," he added.
Activists celebrated the groundbreaking ruling but cautioned against over-optimism given the scale of the task at hand.
"At the end of the day, one can only hope the symbolism attached to this order translates into real action on the ground," said Mr Sanjay Upadhyay, a New Delhi-based environment lawyer.
Successive governments in India have attempted with limited success to clean up the Ganges, which snakes 2,500km across northern India from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal.
The court order, while drawing attention to the dismal state of the two rivers, will do little to protect them, said Mr Suresh Rohilla at the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi.
"It is the constitutional duty of every citizen to protect our natural resources, including rivers," added Mr Rohilla, an urban water management expert.
"We are failing in our duty, and we ignore other laws meant to protect our rivers. So simply giving the rivers greater rights does not automatically give them greater protection."
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS