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India's Ganges and Yamuna Rivers Now Have the Same Legal Rights as a Human Being

Mar 22, 2017 11:32 AM EDT

Ganges, a 2,500-kilometer waterway named after the Hindu goddess Ganga, is considered one of the holiest rivers in the world by Hindus. Throughout the year, people embark on pilgrimages and festivals on the banks of this river. However, the waters of Ganges and its tributaries have become highly polluted.

As part of efforts to restore the glory of the sacred river, a court in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand declared that the Ganges and its main tributary, Yamuna, be granted the status of living human entities with full legal rights, according to a report from The Guardian. This means that polluting or damaging these bodies of water in any way would be legally equal to harming a person.

Over the years, rivers in India degraded in quality due to city sewage, farming, pesticides and industrial waste. Yamuna, Ganges' main tributary, is reportedly ruined with sewage and industrial pollution. It's so dirty that some spots no longer support life. With the new status as living entities, environmentalists and officials are hoping water quality would improve.

Three officials were appointed as legal custodians of the rivers, tasked to conserve and protect India's sacred waters. A management board is expected to be formed in the next three months.

However, not everyone is certain about the practical effects of the court decision.

"There are already 1.5bn litres of untreated sewage entering the river each day, and 500m litres of industrial waste," Himanshu Thakkar, an engineer who coordinates the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, pointed out in The Guardian. "All of this will become illegal with immediate effect, but you can't stop the discharge immediately. So how this decision pans out in terms of practical reality is very unclear."

This decision follows a similar one that granted legal rights to the Whanganui River in New Zealand last week.

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