Environmental personhood in India: A greener democratic approach

Blog State, democracy, environment and nature

The genesis of the idea

The world has witnessed different forms of government evolve in different countries over several centuries. These forms have changed from one to another with the changing needs of a particular society. Of the varied forms, democracy is largely considered the best due to a plethora of reasons, including freedom and representation of people, transparency and accountability in governance, and respect for and promotion of human rights.

In this process of evolution of different forms of government, the environment was not paid much attention to, despite the fact that no form of government or economy can function without utilising the virtues of nature (natural resources). Abraham Lincoln once famously remarked that democracy is the “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. “People” here need not be limited to human beings. Other participants of the ecosystem such as trees, mountains, water-bodies, to name a few, can very well be included here. Humans have been exploiting the environment and polluting it for long, and they start to care for it only if doing so does not hinder their normal state of living. This is where the idea of environmental personhood comes into being as a necessity to protect our environment going forward.

Environmental personhood deals with the granting of rights like that of a person to the components of environment (for example, forest, river, lake, mountain, etc.). Bringing such rights within the legal/constitutional framework of a country will bring about a structural change that will help the economy progress on a sustainable development path. The 16th Sustainable Development Goal’s (SDG) Target number 16.7 also expects countries to “ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels”. Although one cannot find the mention of inclusion of nature, its participation and representation at all levels is essential.

Idea of environmental personhood is intrinsic to Indian culture

India’s landscapes and ecosystems, like several others across the globe, are attached to traditions, and cultural and religious­ practices, and are therefore considered sacred. CPR Environmental Education Centre[1]  has produced an exhaustive list of such sacred sites. Most rivers, lakes, and other water bodies in India have been attributed and related with pantheon of gods. For example, major rivers such as the Ganga and Krishna are symbolised as gods, and have been worshipped since ancient times. All these ecosystems and landscapes are of immense importance to people’s livelihoods, the result of which must have been such attributions to them by the people.

Why should environment be treated as a person?

There are voices that represent people belonging to different identities that are subjected to suppression or exploitation by others. The environment however, which was once abundant, is suppressed due to the dominating nature of humans. But there are some voices that speak up against this suppression; their voices, merely heard by the government, are not significant enough to bring substantial changes in the system. One of three possible scenarios can therefore play out in the future: (i) humans continue to exploit nature that may lead to an extinction of all forms of life on earth (an extreme but not improbable scenario), (ii) humans continue to exploit nature but at the same time find ways to adapt to or mitigate the adversities of the life-disturbing responses of nature to our actions, (iii) they understand the seriousness of this problem and act right now in all forms possible, that is, by means of complete economic, industrial, social and political reforms.

The monetary values of various services that humans acquire from multiple ecosystems have been considerably underreported. For ecosystems that only provide provisioning services may still have some possibility of having an economic value being attached to it, but this is more difficult when there are cultural, supporting, and regulating services merged with it. For example, let us consider one of each service received from a river which is considered holy by a lot of people. The river will provide water for cleaning, cooking and drinking purposes (provisioning service); these are services that have market values attached. The same river also has people’s sentiments attached (cultural service); it supports in recycling of fresh water (supporting service) and also maintains the groundwater levels (regulating service). Of these four services, except for the aforementioned provisioning service of rivers, it is not easy to determine the monetary values of others.

We can choose not to speak for nature and let it respond with drastic consequences to our actions, or give voice to it. Nature can only have a voice if it is given the rights of a legal entity, and this is exactly what the idea of environmental personhood advocates for.

What is it that we may have to forgo when nature has its own rights?

Whenever an environmental activist or an environmentalist speaks on protecting nature, they are often implored into proffering solutions to compensate for losses to economic growth and development that the process inherently entails. While it is true that a part of development will be lost especially. in the short run, we must not forget the part that will get added: the strong sustainability of growth. When we protect nature, then, according to the United Nations Environment Programme, ‘nature protects us’.

When the innovation of mobile phones hit the market, it took some time for us to adapt to it, and when we did, it led to a more connected and convenient way of life. Similarly, it will take some time for us to adapt to an eco-centric way of living but we will be able to, and that will lead to a more sustainable and viable living for all forms of life, not just humans.

What can be done in India moving forward?

There is an urgent need to integrate traditions, myths, cultural norms, and religious beliefs with the democratic setup of India, and establish the idea of environmental personhood in the constitutional and legal framework of the nation, so as to provide answers to several questions such as:

  • Who should represent the various ecosystems (i.e. different forest ranges, mountains, rivers, lakes, etc.) and at what levels (Panchayat, State Legislative Assembly & National Parliament)?
  • What will be the composition and roles of these representatives?
  • What norms/rules/regulations should these representatives be bound to?

One answer could be the creation and reservation of seats for each ecosystem in both the State and National Assembly; i.e. if there are ‘x’ number of ecosystems in a state, there should be ‘x’ number of seats created and reserved for people representing those ecosystems. Their main role should be in raising support for ecosystems and should be driven by eco-centric ideals. One another solution could be making the various ecosystems as legal persons and a specific community given the right to speak on behalf of their respective ecosystems. Similarly, several such answers/solutions can be found and adopted, and this should be done soon because, as Alanis Obomsawin quotes, “When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realise, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money.”

Further reading:

Cullinan, C. (2008).If nature had rights. Orion Magazine.

Gordon, Gwendolyn (2017).Environmental Personhood.

Wong, James K. (2015). A dilemma of Green Democracy, Political Studies, 64(1_suppl), 136–155.

Warne, Kennedy.The Whanganui River in New Zealand is a legal person

Constitution of the Republic of Ecuador, Chapter 7, the Rights of Nature

Earth's sixth mass extinction event under way, scientists warn

[1] An organization based in Chennai, India — hosted and sponsored by the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change (Government of India).

Editor’s Note: This blog is part of the IGC’s 10 year celebration series. This blog is linked to our work on democracy and accountability.