On March 20, 2017, the High Court of Uttarakhand, India, ruled that, ‘The Rivers Ganga and Yamuna, all their tributaries … are declared as juristic/legal persons/living entities having the status of a legal person with all corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a living person in order to preserve and conserve river Ganga and Yamuna’ (Mohd Salim v. State of Uttarakhand and others). In the ruling, the judges appointed three guardians as ‘persons in loco parentis’ [meaning ‘in place of a parent’] as the human face to protect, conserve and preserve the Rivers Ganga and Yamuna and their tributaries. The public celebration of this judgment drew legitimacy from the transnational discourses and legal initiatives giving ‘rights to Nature’, but it omitted acknowledgment of other human designs for water, most notably the intention to centralise control of all basin extractions and uses into a single authority.

The river Ganga and its tributaries are known worldwide for producing food and water for large populations. Surface water is burdened with pollution. The judgment presents an interesting example of a negotiation of categories of personhood, goddess and natural resource. However, the Supreme Court stayed this High Court judgment so that government departments could avoid the accountability that a rights-based ruling would require. This paper argues that the continuation of multiple institutions of decision-making and judgment, including the National Green Tribunal, is a better path to protecting these sacred rivers than the path proposed in the landmark ruling.