Two Glaciers in India Granted Personhood Status, Court Rules

The Gangtori and Yamunotri glaciers in India were recently granted “living beings” status or personhood by the Uttarakhand state court in order to protect them, particularly from pollution and climate change. Located in the Himalayas, both glaciers are considered sacred by Hindus, the dominant religion in India, and are important pilgrimage sites. The glaciers also provide fresh water to millions of people through glacial runoff that flows into the Ganges and Yamuna rivers, which were declared “living beings” last month.

The Himalayas (Source: Creative Commons).

The designation of the two glaciers comes on the heels of the right wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) recent election victories in the states of Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh. Led by Prime Minister Modi, the BJP has been criticized for its nationalist policies in India, such as ignoring the minority Muslim population in India. 

While the granting of personhood status follows a pioneering trend set by a New Zealand court, which designated personhood to a former national park and later a river, the designation may also be a move by the BJP to earn political favor despite other controversial policies. The coincidence of the timing of the court’s decision and the recent election victories follow a pattern of political action under Hindu nationalism.

Not long ago, for example, the BJP appointed Hindu nationalist Yogi Adityanath the state leader of Uttar Pradesh, where there is a high population of Muslims. Adityanath has a history of controversial statements about Muslims, which include a comment that Muslim men seduce Hindu women to lessen the Hindu population and a public defense of the killing of a Muslim man in 2015 after his family allegedly ate beef.

Prime Minister Modi (Source: Creative Commons).

On the other hand, the BJP’s chief rival, the Indian National Congress (INC), champions religious diversity and tolerance. But for the first time since 2002, the BJP won a majority of seats in Uttarkhand, earning 56 to the INC’s 11. Similarly, in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP won a landslide 325 seats to the INC’s 54. The Bahujan Samaj Party, which caters to minority Muslims, took 19 seats in Uttar Pradesh.

Justices Rajiv Sharma and Alok Singh of Uttarakhand state court bestowed the legal distinction of “Juristic Persons” on the two glaciers, giving them legal rights. Personhood status allows lawsuits to be brought by features of the natural world, without the need to show harm done to a human.

The ruling recognized glacier retreat as one of the reasons for the personhood status. “Gangotri is one of the largest glaciers in the Himalayas,” the Court said. “However, it is receding fast. In over 25 years, it has retreated more than 850 meters.” At 7,100 meters above sea level, Gangtori Glacier is the longest glacier in the Central Himalayas at 30 km in length. But it has been shrinking at a rate of retreat of about 13 meters per year since 2000.

In addition, Yamunotri Glacier is also receding at an alarming rate. In just a few hundred years, the glacier may be gone completely and with it the freshwater rivers. Millions of people depend on glacial melt for water, with glacial ice the largest reservoir of freshwater on earth. A recent report in The Cryosphere states that the mass of Himalayan glaciers may drop by 70-99 percent by the year 2100. 

Michael Gerrard, a professor at Columbia University School of Law who has practiced environmental law for nearly 30 years, told GlacierHub, “There have been various efforts in the U.S., but none have gotten very far at all. The ruling is a manifestation of a completely different legal system, a non-western legal system.”

The Ganges River (Source: Creative Commons).

In addition to the glaciers, several rivers, streams, waterfalls, jungles, forest wetlands and valleys will also be protected by the new court ruling. Seven public representatives from the cities and towns in Uttarakhand will be appointed to ensure that the communities living along the banks of rivers and near glaciers have a say in their protection.

“Giving the glaciers and the major rivers that flow from these glaciers living entity status is an important direction in preserving India’s remaining water resources,” Meha Jain, assistant professor at the School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan, told GlacierHub. “These rivers are critical for hundreds of millions of people, including farmers who rely on them for irrigation, which will become even more critical with growing food security demands over the coming decades.”

David Haberman wrote about one of these rivers, the Yamuna River, in his book River of Love in an Age of Pollution, published by the University of California Press. “Celebrated as an aquatic form of divinity for thousands of years, the Yamuna is one of India’s most sacred rivers. A prominent feature of north Indian culture, the Yamuna is conceptualized as a goddess flowing with liquid love—yet today it is severely polluted, the victim of fast-paced industrial development.”

Gangtori glacier (Source: NASA).

Black carbon has been identified as a cause of glacier melt and has been responsible for accelerating the retreat of India’s glaciers by accumulating on top of the snow, increasing the absorption of solar energy. It is typically given off by cookstoves, diesel engines and biomass burning, activities that are ubiquitous in countries like India, which suffers from air pollution as a result of black carbon. Black carbon isn’t nearly as prevalent in many developed countries because of technology advancements and regulation. Perhaps the ruling and emphasis on protecting the glaciers will lead to changes in India’s use of burning activities associated with black carbon.

A woman using a cookstove (Source: Creative Commons).

Climate change continues to warm the Earth and endanger the Himalayan natural landscape and glaciers. While the recent designation by the court may further the preservation of glaciers and river systems, a simple decree will not do much if not acted upon, particularly by the government.


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