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By Lavanya Rathi


Environmental entities are given the status of legal persons under the idea of environmental personhood. The idea acknowledges that nature has rights and that those rights should be upheld by a court of law. As a result, the environment has broad and strong legal safeguards, regardless of how closely it relates to human interests. This article traces the history of the movement to get legal personhood for the environment and natural resources. The article aims to establish theoretical grounds for understanding the environmental personhood movement in India. 

Environmental personhood was once considered to be an obscure legal theory. But there has been a recent resurgence of interest in the idea. The significance of indigenous methods of understanding the relationship between humans and the rest of the earth is fundamentally tied to its growing relevance in modern environmental justice. The influence that indigenous groups are having on the conversation about the preservation of the environment is reflected in the advances in international law. 

Taking a broader look at environmental personhood around the world will help in developing an understanding of movements associated with environmental personhood in India. Ecuador made history in 2008. It became the first nation to amend its constitution to include protections for the environment. Bolivia followed soon after in 2010. In all cases, legislative changes occurred at the same time as indigenous groups’ political clout increased. The significance of Pachamama—”nature” in the native Quichua and Aimara languages—demonstrates the impact of indigenous peoples’ worldviews in both nations. Nature has the right “to exist, survive, preserve and renew its vital cycles, structure, functions and its process in development,” according to Article 71 of Ecuador’s constitution. Every individual and group has the right to speak out in favour of the environment. The constitution avoids directly personifying nature. Instead, nature—a definite entity separate from human interests—is the bearer of rights. Similar protection is provided by Bolivian law. The public interest as a whole justifies the legal acknowledgement of nature. Humans lose their hegemony over nature under the Law of Mother Earth’s Rights. Instead of individual characteristics like woods, rivers, glaciers, etc., the law establishes a systemic legal foundation to safeguard nature as a whole.

A different strategy was used in New Zealand, but it was still based on how indigenous cultures there interpret their relationship with the environment. For instance, a specific river or mountain may be an ancestor for a Maori tribe (iwi), sub-tribe (hapu), or extended family group (whanau) (tupuna). Their worldview heavily relies on this. This perspective had an impact on the decision to give the Te Urewera forest and the Whanganui River the status of persons. The relevance of ascribing personality to specific natural characteristics is expanding. 

The Indian Constitution’s Article 21—the right to life—was extended to non-human animals in 2014 by the Supreme Court of India. The Canadian government acknowledged Mutesheku Shipu’s legal rights in 2021 (Magpie River). A global movement called “environmental personhood” is emerging to recognise both indigenous law and the rights of nature.  Like many other landscapes and ecosystems around the world, those in India are linked to customs, cultural practices, and religious beliefs; as a result, they are revered as sacred. The CPR Environmental Education Center has compiled a comprehensive list of these holy places. In India, the pantheon of gods has been associated with and assigned to the majority of rivers, lakes, and other bodies of water. For instance, significant rivers like the Ganga and Krishna are revered as deities and have been since ancient times. These people’s attributions to these ecosystems and landscapes must be the outcome of their enormous value to people’s livelihoods.

Environmental personhood in India can be analysed through a case study. The Madras High Court ruling is the most recent in a patchwork of judge-made laws pertaining to natural rights in India. At least three of India’s state high courts have ruled in favour of acknowledging the legal personhood of glaciers, rivers, animals, and Mother Earth. ​​At the federal level, the legislation concerning the rights of nature is still in flux, whereas those decisions are enforceable at the state level. The Ganges and Yamuna rivers were given legal personhood by the Uttarakhand High Court in 2017, however, that ruling was overturned by India’s Supreme Court. The Supreme Court determined that the decision was unconstitutional because the High Court put “duties and obligations” on the rivers that were comparable to those that apply to people, in addition to granting them legal rights. The Supreme Court stated that these obligations and liabilities might provide people with the right to sue rivers in the event of floods or other natural disasters, potentially leading to difficult questions concerning who would be responsible for covering any losses. The geography of the rivers is a further problem. The issue of determining which state government should serve as the river’s guardian arose because the rivers crossed many states. 

Other state courts have continued to define the rights of nature in terms of legal personhood despite the Supreme Court’s decision, in that case, imposing the same rights, obligations, and liabilities as the Uttarakhand high court. The Uttarakhand High Court and the Punjab and Haryana High Court, respectively, recognised that animals have the status of legal persons in their respective states in 2018 and 2019. The Punjab and Haryana High Court, which is situated close to India’s northeastern border with Nepal, declared in 2020 that the reservoir known as Sukhna Lake in the foothills of the Himalayas is a “living entity” and “legal person.”

In order to answer questions like Who should represent the various ecosystems (i.e. different forest ranges, mountains, rivers, lakes, etc.) and at what levels (Panchayat, State Legislative Assembly, & National Parliament), it is urgently necessary to integrate traditions, myths, cultural norms, and religious beliefs with India’s democratic setup and establish the idea of environmental personhood in the country’s constitutional and legal framework.

What will the makeup and responsibilities of these representatives be?

What standards, laws, or regulations ought to apply to these representatives?

One solution might be to construct and reserve seats in the State and National Assembly for each ecosystem; for example, if a state has an “x” number of ecosystems, an “x” number of seats should be created and reserved for individuals who represent those ecosystems. Their primary objective should be to increase support for ecosystems, and they ought to be motivated by eco-centric principles. Making the numerous ecosystems into legal entities and granting a certain community the authority to speak on behalf of each environment could be another possibility. Similar answers and solutions can be found, and they should be adopted as soon as possible because to quote Alanis Obomsawin, “you will realize, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money when the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted.”

About the Author

Lavanya Rathi is an undergraduate student at Ashoka University, pursuing social sciences. She is the co-founder and director of a non-profit organisation ‘Tele-Upchaar’. Her passion for creating change led her to be titled as an Ashoka Young Changemaker. She is enthusiastic about the Social Sciences and has a keen interest in writing and developing public policy.

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