Megamalai forest region covering 60000 hectares, in Theni district of Tamilnadu is a less explored tourist destination. Located 1500 m above mean sea level, it has many scenic waterfalls, human made dams, private plantations of tea, coffee and cardamom. This Shola grassland and forest region is the primary catchment area of Vaigai river. Megamalai is an abode of tribal people, hoofed mammals, wild boars, spotted deers, many bird species and carnivores.
Recently Megamalai received media attention due to a unique judgement pronounced by the Madurai Bench of state High court. Invoking the parens patriae jurisdiction with the concern for environmental protection, Justice S.Srimathy entitled legal personhood to mother Nature. Conferring all corresponding rights, duties and liabilities as envisaged by the constitution for a human being is now applicable to Nature.
The verdict happened, when a former Tahsildar level officer, filed a petition to quash the disciplinary proceedings against him. He allegedly granted patta (land deed) for Megamalai forest land classified as “Forest Poramboke Land” to certain individuals. Court ruled that the former officer was found guilty, hence the land deed must be cancelled in village records. Besides, the compulsory retirement of the officer was avoided at the cost of a six months increment.
What is Parens patriae jurisdiction?
Parens patriae has its origin from Latin, which means “parent of the nation”. In case of minor children or physically/ mentally/ differently abled people whose rights were denied by irresponsible/abusive/careless parents, the state can invoke parens patriae jurisdiction. With sovereign power, the state can assume parenthood to provide all the rights meant for protection of such challenged individuals.
The above pronouncement was in line with the court order issued back in 2017 by Uttarakhand High court. The rivers Ganga & Yamuna along with its origin Gangotri and Yamunotri were granted all rights, duties and liabilities similar to that of a living person. Uttarakhand HC, in turn quoted the 2017 New Zealand court verdict providing legal personhood rights to the sacred Whanganui River of indigenous Maori tribe.
Legal verdicts conferring identity and personhood for non human living entities
New Zealand made a Te Urewera Act in 2014, through which Urewera National Park had been given legal identity and protected status. Section II of the act states courts are duty bound to protect the environmental ecology under the New Environment Justice Jurisprudence and also under principles of parens patriae.
Concerned about the extinction of species and destruction of ecosystems, Ecuador’s constitutional court banned mining in the protected Los Cedros rainforests in 2021. For violating nature’s rights, the mining permits of state owned company Enami and its Canadian partner Cornerstone Capital Reserves were revoked.In 2022, yet another Latin American nation Panama, passed a bill in the national assembly, bestowing all rights to Nature as like that for humans,corporations or trusts. Unlike the Madras HC verdict, Nature was defined as ” unique, indivisible, self regulating community of living beings,elements and ecosystems interrelated to each other that sustains, contains and reproduces all beings”.
Legal identity loopholes of non human living entities
Within three months of conferring personhood to Ganga and Yamuna rivers, Supreme court of India put a stay order on HC verdict. The SC reasoned the practical complexity in handling legal identity for rivers that meander through different states. Besides, entitled with legal duties and liabilities akin to an individual, any Indian citizen can file a suit against these rivers in cases of flood or its associated calamities. The SC summoned questions like in such cases, who will be responsible to offer fair compensations and how to handle such issues? However, a final judgement with clarifications regarding whose rights, how to preserve them and clear cut definitions in implementation phase are pending at SC, even after 5 years.
Apparently, the act for conserving nature by Panama is succinct. No liabilities or duties have been entitled to Mother Nature. The bestowed rights are as follows
- Right to exist, persist and regenerate natural life cycles
- Right to conserve biodiversity
- Right for restoration, in due course on cases of maladies happening by human activities directly or indirectly
Unattended environmental concerns in granting legal identity to nature
Unfortunately, one of the serious threats pertaining to biodiversity loss globally, but not addressed in any of these verdicts, is the invasive alien species (IAS). IAS ranges from microbes,insects,plants,animals, birds to fishes that may outcompete the native species due to lack of natural predators in its introduced ecosystem. Besides, the native species may face severe competition with IAS for meeting basic demands of food and shelter in natural habitats. What are the adaptive measures in containing their presence in rich biodiverse ecosystems entitled with legal identity?
According to a recent study, published in March 2022, India is in second position after the USA among 112 countries, which spends annually huge amounts (127.3 – 182.6 billion dollar in total) of exchequer for the last 60 years controlling invasive alien species. 300 out of the 2000 species were declared as invasive in India. Surprisingly, among those invasive species, the record expenditure had been spent over a mere number of 10 species is an alarming fact. The weed plants like Lantana camara and Eichhornia crassipes were introduced by the British to India for their aesthetic values. The former can easily adapt to high temperature and moisture conditions invading about 30,000 hectares of forest area in India as per the reports.
Another striking contemporary example is the case of Hippos in Colombia. The drug lord Pablo Escobar, illegally imported a herd of African Hippopotamus in 1980’s and conserved them in his private zoo Hacienda Napoles. After his death in 1993, Hippos appeared in nearby rivers and their count rose to 130 in 2022. It is estimated that within 8 years the number of Hippos may rise to 400.
Hippopotamuses, though herbivores, can be aggressive animals and can heavily damage crops due to their requirement of enormous food quantities. Hence the Colombian government is planning to declare them as invasive species. Colombia is conducting local level discussions with communities in the affected ecosystem for finding amicable permanent solutions.
Diverting the focus from human – centric to nature- centric attitude, globally, in ecosystem conservation strategies by contemporary jurisprudence is highly appreciable. In India, the Madras High court verdict pioneers upholding nature’s rights against violation. But nature as such, is a very complex and interconnected system of multiple components, unlike human individuals. Hence there remains many open questions regarding the court order at the implementation phase. In a region like Meghamalai consisting of diverse species, whose rights are to be protected in what means and how must be rationally answered. Imbibing wise approaches from other nations,considering the diverse lingua franca-socio- political- economic- environmental- cultural scenarios are quintessential in decision making. Developing clear cut definitions and reasonable answers within the Indian constitutional framework, catalyses efficiency in environment conservation efforts.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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