Should the leatherback turtle go to court?

It cannot speak for itself when its rights to exist are threatened. But can we stand up for them?

Published : Jan 12, 2023 10:30 IST

Leatherback turtle on the Galathea Bay nesting beach, Great Nicobar Island.

Leatherback turtle on the Galathea Bay nesting beach, Great Nicobar Island. | Photo Credit: Kartik Shanker

The Galathea Bay Wildlife Sanctuary notified in 1997 for monitoring marine turtles is home to tropical evergreen rainforests, coralline coast shelters, unique flora and fauna including the giant leatherback turtle, water monitor lizard, reticulated python, Nicobar tree shrew, Nicobar megapode, Nicobar pigeon Malayan palm civet, among several others. It is one of the northern Indian Ocean’s largest nesting sites for leatherback turtles who are known to migrate an astonishing 10,000 km between their foraging and nesting grounds, southeast towards the western coast of Australia and southwest towards the eastern coast of Africa.

In January 2021, after the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife denotified the Galathea Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, scientists and researchers were in despair over its disastrous implications for the animals and birds. The proposed Nicobar project makes a mockery of the National Marine Turtle Action Plan (2021-2026) prepared by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change for the protection of turtles along India’s coast, including the leatherback turtle in the Andaman and Nicobar islands. The leatherback is a Schedule 1 species, having the highest protection under the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972.

As part of the United Nations, India has an obligation to abide by the UN General Assembly declaration passed in 2009, where Member states adopted its first resolution recognising the rights of nature. It said:

“Rights of Nature is grounded in the recognition that humankind and Nature share a fundamental, non-anthropocentric relationship given our shared existence on this planet, and it creates guidance for actions that respect this relationship. Legal provisions recognizing the Rights of Nature, sometimes referred to as Earth Jurisprudence, include constitutions, national statutes, and local laws.”

India, as part of the UN General Assembly, acknowledged that the loss of biodiversity, desertification, climate change and the disruption of natural cycles are among the costs of our disregard for nature and the integrity of its ecosystems and life-supporting processes.

At COP26 in Glasgow, Prime Minister Narendra Modi proposed a “one-word movement” which he called “lifestyle for environment (LIFE)”, stressing that “the shift to resilient and sustainable lifestyles is required not only to deal with the current climate crisis but also to address unforeseen challenges, such as future pandemics, and to create the conditions for living in Harmony with Nature.” It is shocking that the government is sanctioning projects that clearly violate LIFE in all its forms.

The Public Trust Doctrine, affirmed by the Supreme Court, mandates affirmative action based on the notion that the public has a right to expect certain lands and areas to retain their natural characteristics. Over the last decade or so, courts have passed important judgments recognising the rights of nature. The Uttarakhand High Court in 2018 declared the “entire animal kingdom including avian and aquatic” as legal entities. In March 2020, the Madras High Court passed the judgment declaring “Mother Nature” as a “Living Being”, directing the State and Central governments to protect it in all possible ways.

The leatherback turtle cannot speak for itself when its rights to exist are threatened. But can we stand up for their right to existence and in so doing, safeguard our own future?

Shrishtee Bajpai is an environmental researcher with Kalpavriksh. The views expressed are her own.

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