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Of Ebbs and Flows: Understanding the Legal Consequences of Granting Personhood to Natural Entities in India

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 January 2021

Stellina Jolly
South Asian University, Faculty of Legal Studies, New Delhi (India). Email:
K.S. Roshan Menon
Advocate, High Court Delhi, New Delhi (India). Email:


A study of the rights regime for environmental protection in India indicates that such protections overlap with constitutional rights guaranteed primarily to citizens or persons under the law. Contemporary jurisprudence has aggressively developed this intersectionality, declaring natural entities to be living persons with fundamental rights analogous to those of human beings. This article explores the role played by two judgments delivered by the Uttarakhand High Court – Mohammed Salim v. State of Uttarakhand and Lalit Miglani v. State of Uttarakhand – in the establishment of an effective framework for environmental protection. This is effectuated in both cases by assigning legal personality to rivers and articulating a conceptual shift from the human-centric approach. Accounting for the socio-cultural and spiritual relationships that have received legal protection, this article critically analyzes the judgments, their rationale and contributions to environmental protection. As the judgments articulate a paradigm shift in environmental protection, their effectiveness is best assessed through analyzing the frameworks created for their implementation. While the pronouncement of the Indian courts on the legal personality of rivers is an encouraging paradigm shift in environmental commitment, establishing the rights of nature was undertaken without due attention to the complexities that characterize the Indian socio-politico-religious context and to the legal consequences of bestowing vaguely contoured rights upon natural entities.

Copyright © The Author(s) 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press

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We thank the anonymous TEL reviewers for their valuable comments on earlier drafts of the manuscript.


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47 Constitution of India, Art. 227.

48 Shree Chamundi Mopeds Ltd v. Church of South India Trust Association, 1992 SCR (2) 999; Piyush Kanti Chowdhury v. State of West Bengal (2007) 23 CHN 178.

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53 Narayan Dutt Bhatt, ibid, para. 99; Karnail Singh, ibid., para. 26.

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58 Human Rights and Peace for Bangladesh v. Government of Bangladesh, Writ Petition No. 13989 of 2016 (Bangladesh SC).

59 Ganga, n. 1 above, para. 10.

60 Ibid., para. 9.


61 Ibid., para. 18.


62 Ibid., para. 11.


63 Ibid., para. 16.


64 Glaciers, n. 2 above, para. 60.

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69 Dwivedi, n. 68 above, p. 24.

70 C. Lokgariwar et al., ‘Including Cultural Water Requirements in Environmental Flow Assessment: An Example from the Upper Ganga River, India’ (2014) 39(1) Water International, pp. 81–96; J. O'Keeffe et al., Assessment of Environmental Flows (World Wildlife Fund, 2012), p. 8; V. Tare et al., Environmental Flows for Kumbh 2013 at Triveni Sangam, Allahabad (World Wildlife Fund, 2013), p. 7; A. Harwood et al., Listen to the River: Lessons from a Global Review of Environmental Flow Success Stories (World Wildlife Fund UK, 2017), pp. 15-7.

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72 P. Mittal, ‘Supreme Court Rules out Blanket Ban, Allows 2 hour Window to Burst Crackers’, Live Mint, 23 Oct. 2018, available at:

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75 Ibid., p. 4.


76 Ganga, n. 1 above, para. 16.

77 M.C. Mehta v. Union of India and Others, National Green Tribunal (NGT) Judgment, 1 Jan. 2015 (the judgment refers to the Ganga as a Holy River).

78 S. Jolly & Z. Makuch, ‘Procedural and Substantive Innovations Propounded by the Indian Judiciary in Balancing Protection of Environment and Development: A Legal Analysis’, in C. Voigt & Z. Makuch (eds), Courts and the Environment (Edward Elgar, 2018), pp. 142–68, at 142.

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88 The SCI, in 2017, decided to strike down the practice of ‘triple Talaq’ (the pronouncement of instant divorce by a Muslim husband against his wife) as arbitrary and violative of the constitutional guarantee of equality under Art. 14. The judgment was succeeded by the passing of the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act 2019, which made triple Talaq illegal and punishable by law. The contents of the judgment and the consequent law have been used by entities to further political debate on religious personal law: Shayara Bano v. Union of India (2017) 9 SCC 1; see also ‘Examining the Political Will Behind the Triple Talaq Debate: A Reading List’, EPW Engage, 14 Aug. 2018, available at:

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98 Ibid., p. 483.


99 E. O'Donnell & E. MacPherson, ‘Voice, Power and Legitimacy: The Role of the Legal Person in River Management in New Zealand, Chile and Australia’ (2018) 23(1) Australasian Journal of Water Resources, pp. 35–44; C. Clark et al., ‘Can You Hear the Rivers Sing? Legal Personhood, Ontology, and the Nitty-Gritty of Governance (2019) 45(4) Ecology Law Quarterly, pp. 787–844, at 820; L. Schimmöller, ‘Paving the Way for Rights of Nature in Germany: Lessons Learnt from Legal Reform in New Zealand and Ecuador’ (2020) 9(3) Transnational Environmental Law, pp. 569–92.

100 Glaciers, n. 2 above, para. 61.

101 Ibid.


102 G. Curtis, ‘The Checkered Career of Parens Patriae: The State as Parent or Tyrant?’ (1976) 25(4) De Paul Law Review, pp. 895–915, at 896.

103 Charan Lal Sahu Etc. Etc v. Union of India and Ors, 1989 SCR Supl. (2) 597.

104 Gaurav Kumar Bansal v. Union of India (2017) 6 SCC 730.

105 Glaciers, n. 2 above, para. 63.3. The judgment identifies the Chief Secretary, State of Uttarakhand; Director of the NAMAMI Gange Project; Praveen Kumar (Director of NMCG); Ishwar Singh (Legal Adviser, NAMAMI Gange Project); Advocate General, State of Uttarakhand; Dr Balram K. Gupta (Director (Academics) Chandigarh Judicial Academy); and M.C. Mehta, Senior Advocate, Hon. Supreme Court, as the persons in loco parentis. See generally P. Srivastava, ‘Legal Personality of Ganga and Ecocentrism: A Critical Review’ (2019) 4(1) Cambridge Law Review, pp. 151–68.

106 Stone, n. 97 above, p. 466.

107 Z. Holladay, ‘Public Interest Litigation in India as a Paradigm for Developing Nations’ (2012) 19(2) Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies, pp. 555–73.

108 Ganga, n. 1 above, para. 19.

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112 Glaciers, n. 2 above, para. 53.

113 Ibid., para. 63.4.


114 Center for Social Justice Studies et al. v. Presidency of the Republic et al., Constitutional Court of Colombia, Judgment T-622/16, 10 Nov. 2016.

115 Ibid.


116 The Court relied on the following judgments: Yogendra Nath Naskar, n. 33 above, and Ram Jankijee Deities & Ors v. State of Bihar & Ors, 1999 (5) SCC 50; these judgments conferred legal personality on Hindu idols. Additionally, Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee, Amritsar v. Shri Som Nath Dass & Ors, AIR 2000 SC 1421, conferred legal personality on the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikh faith.

117 Stone, n. 97 above, p. 457.

118 Sierra Club v. Morton, 405 U.S. 727 (1972).

119 T. Berry, The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (Bell Tower, 1999), p. 5.

120 Ibid., p. 161; C. Cullinan, Wild Law: A Manifesto for Earth Justice (Green Books, 2011), p. 93.


121 See generally E. O'Donnell, Legal Rights for Rivers: Competition, Collaboration and Water Governance (Routledge 2018); A. Dyschkant, ‘Legal Personhood: How We Are Getting It Wrong’ (2015) 4 Illinois Law Review, pp. 2075–110.

122 Constitutión Politica de la República del Ecuador (Constitution of Ecuador), Arts 71–4.

123 Te Urewera Act, No. 51, 2014 (New Zealand).

124 Ibid., s. 21; see E. Macpherson, J. Torres Ventura & F. Clavijo Ospina, ‘Constitutional Law, Ecosystems, and Indigenous Peoples in Colombia: Biocultural Rights and Legal Subjects’ (2020) 9(3) Transnational Environmental Law, pp. 521–40.


125 Te Awa Tupua Act, n. 14 above.

126 Ibid., s. 20.


127 Ibid., s. 16.


128 Center for Social Justice Studies, n. 114 above.

129 Ibid.


130 Ibid.


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