India's rivers: From conservation movements to legal personhood

While the current push for legal personhood for rivers is facing obstacles and is stalled, it holds potential as a viable long-term strategy for the preservation of India's rivers
8 Oct 2023
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River quality deteriorates as demand for hydropower to support economic growth continues to expand. (Image: Yogendra Singh Negi, Wikimedia Commons; CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED)
River quality deteriorates as demand for hydropower to support economic growth continues to expand. (Image: Yogendra Singh Negi, Wikimedia Commons; CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED)

The Ganges and Narmada rivers, in particular, have been severely degraded as a result of India's reliance on dams for irrigation and hydropower. Despite decades of significant environmental movements opposed to dams, they largely failed because they couldn't stop the work already in progress. Population growth, urbanisation, and industrialisation all contributed to an increase in river pollution, which harms ecosystems with toxic effluents and untreated sewage.

Now a novel strategy is emerging: using the legal system to give India's rivers legal personhood. This alternative tactic aims to facilitate the rivers' environmental damage recovery. The legal personhood approach is examined by Harry Blair in a recent paper ‘Saving India's rivers: Ecology, civil society, religion, and legal personhood’ as a potential solution after delving into the history of significant protest movements.

The Narmada, Tehri Dam, and Ganga eco-zone cases are all covered in-depth in the literature on which this study is predicated. Works by Dhagamwar, Dwiwedi, James, Sharma, and Drew are among the sources that offer in-depth analyses of the campaigns. While there is a wealth of information on individual anti-dam movements, comparative studies are rare, with the exception of Mertha and Lowry's examination of movements in the US, Australia, and China. The analytical framework for assessing the Indian campaigns is based on their model, which emphasises activist leadership, media engagement, coalition building, and government involvement.

Narmada dam movement: Social justice resistance

The Sardar Sarovar Project, which got its start in the late 1940s, aimed to build a sizable dam on the Narmada River. The dominant front, which attracted large-scale demonstrations and international support, addressed social justice despite opposition tracks concentrating on environmental and economic issues. A key role was played by the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), which organized protests, satyagrahas, and the creative "drowning squad" tactic. A significant but transient victory was achieved in 1993 when the World Bank cancelled its loan as a result of international pressure, particularly from NGOs. The dam's construction continued despite hurdles from the law and sporadic stops, and it was finally opened in 2017.

Tehri dam movement: Green joined by saffron

The Tehri Bandh Virodhi Sangharsh Samiti (TBVSS) opposed the 1949-identified Tehri Dam project. The movement, which was initially centered on ecological and eviction issues, gained momentum in 1989 after Gandhian activist Sunderlal Bahuguna joined it. Construction was temporarily halted by a series of fasts, acts of civil disobedience, and expert reviews, but work eventually resumed in 1994. Bahuguna's partnership with the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) added a religious dimension to the movement's decades-long struggles. The Supreme Court's 2003 decision in favour of the dam, despite significant opposition, signalled the end of India's extensive environmental activism against dams.

Ganga eco-zone: Saffron takes charge

After the second dam's opening in 2008, the early 2000s-era opposition to five dams along the Bhagirathi Ganga gained momentum. Devout Hindu Professor G D Agarwal took the lead and participated in numerous fasts until death. His technical know-how and religious standing enabled him to successfully negotiate the suspension or cancellation of dam projects. The culmination of Agarwal's activism was the establishment of an eco-zone in 2012 that forbade harmful activities. Despite Agarwal's commitment and successes, the study contends that opposition to large dams in India had subsided by this time.

The study uses the Mertha-Lowry model to assess the effectiveness of these movements, highlighting the difficulties they encountered and the elements that influenced their results. While the Tehri Dam movement ultimately lost and the Narmada movement only had partial success, the Ganga eco-zone case showed a shift towards activism that was more strongly influenced by religion. The study also introduces the emerging idea of water bodies having legal personhood as a possible contrast to large-scale environmental movements.

The Mertha-Lowry framework is used to summarise the three cases—Narmada Dam, Tehri Dam, and the Bhagirathi Ganga eco-zone. This model proposes that entrepreneurial activist leadership, high-level media engagement, and a coalition of supportive allies are essential for the success of anti-dam movements. In all three cases, charismatic leaders—Patkar, Amte, Bahuguna, and Agrawal—organized large-scale protests and cleverly employed fasts to draw attention from the public. All campaigns received extensive national and international media coverage, and partnerships with NGOs were formed.

The three cases are summarised in the study and provide important details like energy output, irrigation, displacement figures, civil society organization actions, ideological stance, champions, and outcomes. Despite receiving attention and experiencing brief policy successes, the Narmada and Tehri movements ultimately lost because of powerful development interests. Agarwal's Bhagirathi Ganga campaign, in contrast, was successful in creating an eco-zone that forbade construction.

The activist leadership, media engagement, and coalition-building strategies emphasised in Mertha and Lowry's model may have been essential, but they weren't enough to achieve success in the Indian cases. Without the aid of outside forces, Agrawal was able to accomplish his objectives, casting doubt on the model's usefulness in the Indian context. Support from within the state—the unexplored fourth component of the Mertha-Lowry formula—played a significant role in the cases of China and Australia but was absent or insignificant in the Indian context. The lack of significant anti-dam sentiment in the Indian state points to the need for more research and possible model modification.

The size and media coverage of the Sardar Sarovar and Tehri dam campaigns were absent from recent Indian protests against river projects. Instead, a cutting-edge strategy has emerged: giving rivers legal personhood, akin to the status of corporations. Since Christopher D Stone's article "Should trees have standing? - Toward legal rights for natural objects" from 1972, the idea that natural entities have inherent rights has gained traction.

A Pennsylvania borough became the first place where rivers were given legal personhood in 2006, and Ecuador became the second in 2008. In 2017, the Indian state of Uttarakhand made news when its High Court recognized the Ganga and Yamuna rivers as legal entities. This choice, influenced by both religious and environmental considerations, designated particular officials as guardians to preserve these rivers.

This novel legal tactic, though, was immediately criticised. Risks to the rivers' legal status, potential conflicts of interest, and religious repercussions were among the worries. A stay was issued in 2017 after the state of Uttarakhand appealed the case to the Indian Supreme Court; the stay was in effect for a number of years. There were issues with rivers having legal personhood, such as questions of liability, water resource management, and the need for a national strategy rather than state-specific decisions.

In April 2022, the Madras High Court recognised "Mother Nature" as a legal entity, which could be seen as a turning point. This decision made reference to the Uttarakhand decision and increased hopes for a renewed emphasis on rivers' status as legal persons in the larger Indian legal system.

Legal personhood campaigns, in contrast to civil society campaigns, are dependent on judicial or legislative decisions. Despite the potential importance of this legal strategy, some issues remain, such as how well it fits into the current political landscape, media restrictions, and the need for coalition building.

Legal personhood initiatives deviate from the charismatic leadership and sizable protests typical of civil society campaigns when compared to the standards set by Mertha and Lowry. In place of mobilisation, they rely on legal entrepreneurship, media support for communication, and a reduced need for domestic coalitions.

Furthermore, unlike the Chinese and Australian cases examined by Mertha and Lowry, the Turag river case in Bangladesh lacked significant support from within the state, demonstrating that successful environmental efforts in South Asia can happen without significant government support.

In conclusion, the size and intensity of recent environmental protests in India have decreased. Due to their disparate priorities, an alliance between Hindu and environmentalist organisations seems unlikely, and the legal personhood strategy stands out as a difficult but workable alternative. The legal personhood campaign may gain momentum as there is growing interest in the rights of nature on a global scale and eventually play a significant role in the ongoing campaign to safeguard India's rivers.

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