July 29, 2022
Good morning. In today’s either/view, we discuss if nature should have rights. We also look at the proposed shoreline facelift in Tamil Nadu, among other news.
📰 FEATURE STORY
Can Nature Have Rights?
Man in the state of nature had no rights. This is because the “state of nature” is considered a precursor to civil society. Once society stepped in, a person got their rights depending on their inclusion in a group. Different people from different groups have access to different sets of rights. So what about nature?
Animals have rights. Trusts and firms have rights. So obviously, nature would too… right? Well, things aren’t as simple in the realm of theory. While, sure, nature could be personified and then given rights. That’s what our Indian courts have done. But is this anthropocentric approach really the best we can do to protect a formidable entity like nature?
First, let’s start with what anthropocentrism is. In the most literal sense, it means human-centric. This is the idea that humans are the only ones to have any intrinsic value, more so than nature, animals and even god. Now, when something has value, it becomes worthy of protection. That’s where rights come in. A right simply protects a being’s inherent value.
With that in mind, it becomes easy to understand why the Madras and Uttarakhand High Courts invoked parens patriae to declare nature a living being with rights. In Latin, parens patriae means “parent of the nation”. In law, it shows the state can interfere in the case of lax parenthood or guardianship. Basically, taking responsibility for a child facing abuse from their caregiver.
These Indian courts aren’t the first to give nature rights. It all started with Ecuador. In 2008, it became the first country to acknowledge nature as a legal rights holder. Soon, Bolivia followed and ever since then, the topic has been a hotbed for political scientists. In India, the rights of nature in its entirety might be a newer development. But the idea has been around for some time now.
Specifically, the notion of lending a legal personality to non-human entities came about in the Animal Welfare Board v A Nagaraja case of 2014. This is where the Supreme Court said that every species has a right to live. While it did not outrightly declare the animal kingdom a legal being, it formed the basis of the legal personality given to rivers in 2017. This was the beginning of our journey with environmental personhood.
On the face of it, this seems like a decent approach to environmental action, but the disillusioning fangs of reality can never be too far behind. Law experts and political scientists have cited the structure of our legal system as the main deterrent. According to them, the ebbs and flows of a lawsuit and the fallible nature of human jurisprudence can simply not be responsible for an entire ecosystem. And it is foolish to think otherwise.
VIEW: Just get creative
Issues with personhood in the realm of law only come about if we take Aristotle and Kant’s understanding of the person as the ultimate word on jurisprudence. In that case, the rights of corporations, trusts, rivers, animals, etc., are all invalid. Understandably, ruminations on the being are the last of a lawyer’s concerns. Instead, the law cares about the social and economic interests behind granting a right to a legal entity. This is why firms have legal rights, as it accumulates money. Thus, establishing an economic and social necessity – more economic than social in some cases.
Even the Middle Ages saw court cases rung up against animals and trees. This shows that aspects of nature have always had the status of a legal person. Today, we’re talking about the possible rights of robots, machines and computerised agents. And this is outside of the world of Blade Runner. Basically, non-human objects have always had legal rights when necessary. Thus, keeping nature out of the conversation doesn’t make much sense. Some have said that this is because nature is still seen as a resource, i.e. to be exploited. And exploiting something with legal rights is immediately a lot harder.
Christopher D Stone in Should Trees Have Standing? Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects said that the idea of nature with legal rights goes against Western tradition. As per the West, nature has always been perceived as property. This means that it is subject to ownership. The owner of a piece of land is allowed to do whatever they want to it. An entity with a legal personality cannot be owned and can appear in court if wronged. It is automatically empowered. Something we should have picked up from indigenous tribes who already see nature as worthy of protection and respect.
COUNTERVIEW: Gaps in the system
A right still has to be enforced, and in the case of nature, that becomes a bit of an issue. In India, the state can step in where necessary to stand up for nature’s rights. This is the very same state that was responsible for the ecological distress. Sure, non-governmental organisations can step in from time to time, but then it becomes a matter of funding. And considering how expensive and time-hungry a lawsuit is, it will come down to the motives of the stakeholders in a case. As environmental law specialist Erin O’Donnell put it, if it is everybody’s responsibility, it will eventually become nobody’s responsibility.
In 2017, when the Uttarakhand High Court gave the status of a legal person to Rivers Ganga and Yamuna, the court named the state government their guardian. It didn’t take long for the state to approach the Supreme Court, citing a lack of clarity regarding their specific responsibilities as a river’s legal guardian. Especially considering the rivers flow beyond the confines of the state. The state government also had issues with the term “guardian”; it could mean they would be held responsible for the rivers’ faults. The same rules for guardianship apply to nature as a whole.
Finally, there are dangers in giving out human rights to non-human entities. According to some, it diminishes our own idea of what it means to be human. For example, the advent of corporate human rights has put a lot of people’s lives at risk for companies to gain more global capital. It conflates the meanings of “human” and “person”. The right to health is something everyone has, and yet, big pharma gets to dictate the price of life-saving medication. The truth is that these structures, natural or not, are all much bigger than the human being. Having them conform to our rules would do them and us a massive injustice.
What’s your opinion on this?
(Only subscribers can participate in polls)
a) Nature should be given the status of a legal personality.
b) Nature should not be given the status of a legal personality.
🕵️ BEYOND ECHO CHAMBERS
For the Right:
BJP Gives Away Its Growing Insecurity About Kejriwal
For the Left:
Why We Must Stop Obsessing About The Daily Wealth Of Ambani And Adani
🇮🇳 STATE OF THE STATES
Highest custodial deaths (Uttar Pradesh) – According to the Centre, Uttar Pradesh has the highest number of custodial deaths in the country. In 2020-21, it recorded 451 deaths. It increased to 501 in 2021-22. The Centre issues advisories periodically and enacted the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993. It stipulates the establishment of the National Human Rights Commission and State Human Rights Commission to investigate alleged human rights violations by public servants.
Why it matters: For context, the total number of custodial deaths in India increased from 1,940 in 2020-21 to 2,544 in 2021-22. West Bengal had the second-highest number of custodial deaths with 185 in 2020-21 and 257 in 2021-22. while the number of custodial deaths has increased, only 26 policemen have been convicted in the past two decades, according to the National Crime Records Bureau.
Marina-Kovalam shoreline facelift (Tamil Nadu) – The state housing and urban development (HUD) wants to spruce up the 30-km shoreline from Marina to Kovalam for ₹100 crores. It could get nature trails, cycling activities, and new infrastructure. A special purpose vehicle (SPV) will spearhead the project with 17 members. It’ll also include the preservation of flora and fauna and the development of public spaces with distinct themes.
Why it matters: This will be a first-of-its-kind initiative for a coastal state. To preserve coastal biodiversity and ecology, the project comes as a necessity. This also includes ensuring that the space is litter-free. There are about eight beaches along the shoreline from Marina to Kovalam. The members of the SPV will be from various departments like the coastal zone management authority and the tourism department.
Purchase of Gaumutra (Chhattisgarh) – The state government began purchasing cow urine from the Hareli festival falling on July 28. The cow urine bought will be used to make pest control products and liquid organic fertiliser. The government wants farmers to minimise the use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers on food items which could reduce their nutritional value.
Why it matters: In July 2020, the state began a first-of-its-kind scheme, the Godhan Nyay Yojana. Under it, cow dung was purchased at ₹2 per kg from cattle rearers. It’s being used to make organic manure for farmers to help promote organic farming. More than 76 lakh quintals of cow dung have been bought in the last two years, and ₹153 crores have been paid to beneficiaries.
Semiconductor policy (Gujarat) – The state now has its own semiconductor policy to attract investment in chip manufacturing. It’s the first state in the country to have a dedicated policy for the semiconductor industry. Among the incentives outlined are additional assistance of 40% of capital by the government and a 50% subsidy on additional land. The policy will cover the next five years and aims to generate about 2 lakh jobs in the state.
Why it matters: The semiconductor sector is a cost-intensive one where returns trickle over the years. India’s semiconductor sector still has a long way to go. It has usually been reliant on China since they have automated the industry. Recently, an MoU was signed to set up a semiconductor fabrication plant in Mysuru, Karnataka. For Gujarat, the semiconductor sector is among the 9 key sectors it needs to concentrate on to become a $5 trillion economy.
Old butterfly species (Assam) – After 90 years, an old butterfly species has been spotted in the state. The Lilac Silverline (Apharitis lilacinus) supposedly has been recorded only once by H. Stevens in 1925. A female Lilac Silverline was recorded on June 22, 2020, at the Dibru Saikhowa National Park. At the park, 64 species of butterflies were recorded during a survey.
Why it matters: The records of this species highlight the importance of the Brahmaputra grasslands. It’s often not given priority for conservation except for mammals and birds. The one found in the Northeast is different from the one found in the rest of the country. It could be a different subspecies.
🔢 KEY NUMBER
₹1.64 lakh crores – Revival package for crisis-hit BSNL announced by the government. It comes as the Union Cabinet approved the merger of BSNL and MTNL.