The Ganges and Yamuna rivers are now legally considered “living human entities,” following the ruling of a high court in the Indian state of Uttarakhand.
That means that causing harm to the rivers amounts to the same thing as harming a human.
It’s a radical legal ruling that’s beginning to gain credibility and momentum around the world and it has the potential to completely change how countries protect the environment.
"The rivers are central to the existence of half of the Indian population and their health and well being,” the court wrote. “They have provided both physical and spiritual sustenance to all of us from time immemorial.”
How and if this ruling can be implemented is unknown, especially when you consider the scale of harm caused daily to the Ganges River, which absorbs more than a billion gallons of waste each day. Seventy-five percent of this is raw sewage and domestic waste. The rest comes from industrial runoff — mostly from tanneries that leak extremely toxic substances.
Read More: These Are the Dirtiest and Cleanest Rivers in the World
The Yamuna river is similarly contaminated. Both rivers are victims of India’s population explosion that has been supported by slapdash development.
In some cities that straddle the Ganges, for instance, the infrastructure is so outdated and incapable of coping with the population that human waste isn’t even filtered before it flows into the river.
Lax regulation and enforcement has also created a climate of industrial impunity — factories can dump huge quantities of toxic chemicals without even facing a fine.
But this new ruling could empower regulatory bodies that have previously been hobbled by a lack of authority and corruption. It could also begin to unlock funding for necessary sanitation systems throughout the country.
The Indian government has been trying to clean the river up for decades, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has poured billions into the latest round of efforts.
Read More: What You Need to Know About Water and Sanitation
Advocates believe that existing efforts at cleaning the rivers will now be expedited. The ruling could also mean that fines and penalties will now be dispensed at a much higher rate, potentially creating a powerful deterrence.
The first river to gain legal protection in the world was the Whanganui River in New Zealand, which gained the status along with a national park.
Through “personhood,” a lawsuit can be brought on behalf of land or water. In the past, lawsuits would have to hinge on some human factor — if a human was being harmed by pollution, for instance.
Read More: Inside India's Massive Plan to End Open Defecation for 564M People by 2019
Defenders of wildlife can be more aggressive in their legal challenges to overdevelopment, deforestation, pollution, and more, by showing that the rights of the park or river are being harmed.
“This settlement is a profound alternative to the human presumption of sovereignty over the natural world,” Pita Sharples told The New York Times at the time.
The Whanganui River was championed by indigenous groups that do not view nature as something to be owned. They view humans, plants, animals, and the natural world as having equal claims to life. When viewed from this perspective, it’s logical to extend the same legal protections to bodies of land and water and all the organisms found on them.
In India, the Ganges River is regarded as sacred, the embodiment of the goddess Ganga. It seems like such a distinction would guarantee it even greater rights.