Saving India’s Rivers: Ecology, Civil Society, Religion, and Legal Personhood

By Harry Blair
World Development Sustainability 3

Abstract: In recent decades, India's environment has been severely compromised by riverine pollution combined with large-scale dams and exacerbated by diversion for irrigation. Most prominent among the rivers so affected has been the Ganges and its tributaries in northern India, which for Hindus include the country's most sacred bodies of water. This paper examines three campaigns opposing dam construction, arguably the most widely publicized and analyzed efforts of this kind since independence in 1947. One campaign was essentially secular with virtually no religious component, the second mostly secular with some religious support, and the third almost totally a religious initiative. In the end, only the third attained any real success, and that rested on circumstances unlikely to be replicated. The possibility that future campaigns of this scale can be taken up again appears remote. Meanwhile, riverine pollution has continued to increase everywhere despite massive governmental programs to reduce it. Theoretically, it would seem that environmentalists and Hindu devotees with their veneration of nature should be able to work in common cause to reduce pollution, but any large-scale cooperation seems unlikely between these two disparate realms. More recently an effort to protect rivers by endowing them with legal personhood enjoyed an initial success, holding the promise that lawsuits could be brought on behalf of a river against those polluting it. The paper concludes that while the legal personhood strategy is currently stalled, it offers the best chance for eventual success in attenuating riverine pollution. In the course of the paper, a comparative theoretical framework for assessing anti-dam protests will be tested.
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