River rights as legal person
(With reference to Universal Declaration of River Rights)

Jajo Themson *

 Wangjing turel - Flooding in Heirok and Sangaiyumpham areas in Thoubal District as on July 30 2015
Wangjing turel in July 2015 :: Pix - Deepak Oinam


Our mother earth has been severely wounded due to un-thoughtful human actions ever since its evolution down to civilization at different stages till modern age. Among the precious free gift of nature, rivers are the most essential being and development as well as the best host for enumerable living creatures but they are mostly victimized in return.

Chris Finlayson, a lawyer rightly described the “River Whanganui as ancestor for the Moari people” in New Zealand. Rivers constitute everything for indigenous river based communities lives everywhere. Rivers have been key factor in the history of human civilization.

Rivers and nature based tribal communities have inseparable cultural affinity, untold social attachment, pivot to their economic sustainability, agricultural practices, transportation, urbanization and raising up their living standard over generations.

But it is really saddening and quite alarming that everywhere rivers are conventionally made a fatality to unfathomed dimensions in the wake of modern civilization and in the competition of the so called development.

Every mega developmental project like Dams & Hydropower projects, Railway constructions, factories and industries, minerals mining causing contamination, spoilage of environment, pollution of rivers due to inflow of chemicals and hazardous materials creating irreversible casualty to our rivers.

Almost all naturally free flowing rivers across the globe are either drying up, contaminated or lost their original conditions leading to perilous ecosystem, losing of bio-diversity and negative impacts on human being and other living creatures.

Universal Declaration of River Rights

Rights concern citizens of the world took up endless struggle to protect rivers to ensure their free flow all over the world with a chain move in the International Rivers Networking at different levels.

Better late than never as the old saying goes, the world received a great relief when some nations passed laws in the parliament legalizing rivers as human entity, which consequently paved way for historic pronouncement of Universal Declaration of Rivers Rights (UDRR) on 29th of September 2017 by the Earth Law Centre (ELC) based in the New York City.

It declares that -all rivers are entitled to the fundamental rights set forth in this declaration, which arise from their very existence on our shared planet - Further declares that all rivers are living entities that possess legal standing in a court of law.

The declaration establishes five fundamental rights that all rivers shall, possess, at minimum, the following –
a. Right to flow freely
b. Right to perform essential functions within its ecosystem
c. Right to be free from pollution
d. Right to native biodiversity and
e. Right to restoration.

Thus just like human being, rivers have been granted their own rights today implicating that any infringement on rivers are serious violations. As per this declaration, river is not a mere river but as a living human being therefore, contravention of its fundamental rights and corresponding freedoms are made enforceable by law courts.

As mentioned above, the Earth Law Centre could have achieved this Declaration after long years of global movement for river protection. The same has lot of influence from the Parliamentary Legislation of New Zealand (NZ) Govt.

The NZ Govt. was the first nation to pass this law in the Parliament after about 140 years- long movement by the Maori tribe striving for legalization of Whanganui River as human being which was finally come to accomplished on 15th March 2017 when its parliament officially enacted as law.

This virtually becomes a good precedent to the entire world. Legalization of River Whanganui was followed by the River Ganga & Yamuna in India on 21 March 2017 and Atrata River in Colombia attained legal rights just as a juristic person.

Thus, our rivers are no longer a mere river like we used to see but just like a legal person, who has freedom to free flowing without any hindrances, freedom to retain its essential functions of ecosystem, free from pollution, right to host biodiversity and freedom to be restored when required. Therefore, any infringement to river is a violation of law today.

UDRR & Our Challenges

Most of the mega dam building nations such as China, USA, Japan, Brazil, South Korea, Canada, South Africa, France and Spain are now on the process of decommissioning and dismantling such projects on realizing the relative low outcomes and multiple negative impacts to environment which had led to loss of bio-diversity, collapse of ecosystem, disruptive and dislocated communities life, losing ground of original socio-cultural identities, depleting history and dignity of the indigenous communities.

Contrary to this, many nations are still on the mad race towards river based activities like dams & hydropower under Triangular push such as – target to meet the energy requirements, searching for carbon free, renewable, clean and green energy and still rising of the so called Third global factor i,e, evolution of several profit motives drives Multi-Millionaires/Billionaires who are looking for avenue for their investment growth.

In the context of Asia, there has been a strong push of dams & hydropower in the Himalayan region especially Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim, Bangladesh, Indian states like Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand including the North Eastern states being the region constitutes Water Tower in Asia possessing big potential for development of such projects.

Among the countries and states in the Himalayan range, Manipur, a small state in the North East corner of India bordering Myanmar, has intensified pushing towards building of above 70 dams in the state under the Manipur Hydro-Power Policy (MHPP) 2012.

The same is aggrandizing the past bitter experiences of disfigurement of its major rivers like Khuga, Singda River, Imphal, Khoupum and Yangwui Kong/Thoubal River. Rights of these rivers have already been subjugated, deprived of their fundamental rights for the dam projects which are all futile.

Imphal River, Nambul River, Iril River, Khuga River, Ijei River, Yangwui Kong/Thoubal River, Tuivai River, Maklang, Tuyungbi, Irang, Barak River, Chakpi River etc are some of the important rivers of Manipur.

Like mentioned above, history unfolded that some of these rivers are brutally raped, some are under victimization and still some rivers are being distorted if implemented the proposed construction of tens of dams in the state under MHPP 2012. The same happen to be quite controversial and apprehended that the proposed plan marked a high potential destruction of almost all free flowing rivers in the state.

In conclusion, I would like to assert it is worth rethinking with serious concern that protection of mother-nature especially river, really does matter. The time has come our law makers, Ministers, high profiled officers and general public to initiate stern action steps to recognize and revere the fundamental rights of the rivers for their long run sustainability.

It is mandatory that the rights stipulated in the UDRR, 2017 be fully respected at all cost. Besides, all citizens have due responsibility to raise voice against any plan that hinders free flowing of rivers.

Let it not be made an easy prey for the profit mongering corporate companies in the name of development. The loss and devastation caused to our rivers in the past and present should not be easily taken for granted.

Ignoring the irreparable and irreversible loss of land, forest, river, collapse of ecosystem and loss of biodiversity, would be a serious violation of law as well as an unforgiveable blunder mistake at last.

* Jajo Themson wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer can be reached at thmsontezonge(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on August 10 2019.

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