The Public Trust Doctrine has its origins in the Roman law, the scope has been extended in the recent years, further placing a duty on the state to hold environmental resources in trust for the benefit of the public. At its widest, it could be used by the courts as a tool to protect the environment from many kinds of degradation. In some countries, the doctrine has formed the basis of environmental policy legislation, allowing private rights of action by citizens for violations by the state (directly or indirectly)[1] of the public trust.

The Rule of Law runs close to the rule of life and the Indian Constitution, in its humanist vision, has made environmental-ecological preservation a fundamental value. The higher jurisprudence of Article 21 of the Constitution (right to life) embraces the protection and preservation of nature’s gift without which life ceases to be viable and human rights become a simulacrum. In other words, this right to life under Article 21 has been extended to include the right to a healthy environment and the right to livelihood. The third aspect of the right to life is the application of public trust doctrine to protect and preserve the public land. When the Indian courts have applied the public trust doctrine, they have considered it not only as an international law concept, but one, which is well established in their national legal system.

Accepting public trust doctrine as a part of common law, the Indian courts have applied this explicitly in three cases, the first one in 1997 and two cases in 1999, including the case under consideration. Articles 48A and 51A of the Constitution also furnish the principles of jurisprudence, which are fundamental to our governance under the Rule of Law.

  1. C. Mehta v Kamal Nath:

The doctrine is first mentioned in M.C. Mehta v Kamal Nath and others where the Indian Hon’ble Supreme Court applied public trust with regard to the protection and preservation of natural resources. In this case, the State Government granted lease of riparian forestland to a private company for commercial purpose. The purpose of the lease was to build a motel at the bank of the River Beas. A report published in a national newspaper alleged that the motel management interfered with the natural flow of the river in order to

[1]David Bollier, “Mary Wood’s Crusade to Reinvigorate the Public Trust Doctrine”, Resilience, Feb. 12, 2014.

divert its course and to save the motel from future floods. The Hon’ble Supreme Court initiated suomotu action based on the newspaper item because the facts disclosed, if true, would be a serious act of environmental degradation.

The Hon’ble Supreme Court in M.C. Mehta started that the Public Trust Doctrine primarily rests on the principle that certain resources like air, sea, waters and forests have such great importance to the people as a whole that it would be unjustified to make them a subject of private ownership. The court observed that: Our Indian legal system, which is based on English common law, includes the public trust doctrine as part of its jurisprudence. The State is the trustee of all natural resources, which are by nature meant for public use and enjoyment. Public at large is the beneficiary of the seashore, running waters, airs, forests and ecologically fragile lands. The State as a trustee is under a legal duty to protect the natural resources. These resources meant for public use cannot be converted into private ownership. As rivers, forests, minerals and such other resources constitute a nation’s natural wealth. These resources are not to be frittered away and exhausted by any one generation. Every generation owes a duty to all succeeding generations to develop and conserve the natural resources of the nation in the best possible way. It is in the interest of mankind[1]. It is in the interest of the nation. Thus, the Public Trust doctrine is a part of the law of the land. The court also ruled that there is no any justifiable reason to rule out the application of the public trust doctrine in all ecosystems in India.

In this case, the Hon’ble Supreme Court was faced with the classic struggle between those members of the public who would preserve our rivers, lakes and open lands in their pristine purity and those charged with administrative responsibilities who find it necessary to encroach to some extent upon open land. It stated that the public bodies should apply public trust doctrine when there is no legislation to protect the natural resources. In their view, applying the polluter pays principle, the Court directed the developer to pay compensation by way of cost for the restitution of the environment and ecology of the area. It had no difficulty in holding that the Himachal Pradesh government committed a patent breach of public trust by leasing out the ecologically fragile land to be developed.

[1]“Land Mark Cases” Archived from the original on 27 Dec 2008. Retrieved 9 October 2016.

Author – Ketan Joshi, Senior Associate