Case Analysis – M.C. Mehta v. Kamal Nath & Ors – Origin of Public Trust Doctrine in India

Understanding the Public Trust Doctrine

The records of the doctrine is traced to the Roman emperor, Justinian. Emperor Justinian proclaims in Book 2 of his,He institutes: By the law of nature these things are common for mankind—the air, running water, the sea, and consequently the shores of the sea. No one, therefore, is forbidden to approaching the seashore.

The public trust doctrine is based on the notion that the public holds inviolable rights in certain lands and resources, and that regardless of title ownership, and that “the state retains certain rights in such lands and resources in trust for the public.”This ancient bases have 2 public Rights. “First, under Roman law the air, running water, the sea, and consequently the sea shore’ were the property of no man but rather were common to all.” “Second, early English common law provided that title to tidelands had two components”: “the King’s right of jus privatum, which could be alienated, and the jus publicum rights of navigation and fishing, which were held by the King in inalienable trust for the public”.

Various Natural Resources(Public properties); including rivers, the seashore, and the air, are controlled by the government in trusteeship for the uninterrupted use of the public. The Sovereign could not make clandestine transfer of public trust properties which the public had a right to enjoy to any private parties if such transfer when effected could interfere with the interest of the public at large


Definitions in Public trust Doctrine

Trustees- A trustee is a person who holds the property on behalf of the beneficiary for the sole benefit of the beneficiary. The trustee under this doctrine is the government or state. In cases where the property is owned by a private organization or person, the private person who owns that property becomes the trustee. Thus, it is the government and the private owner, who is a trustee. These trustees make sure that all the public properties are appropriately managed. Their action should not cause exhaustion and vanishing of the environment and natural resources.

Beneficiaries- The beneficiaries are the citizens of present and future generations. Thus the government of Country/State should hold the public property for the benefit of the present generations and future generations.


Public Trust Doctrine in India

The Public Trust Doctrine in India gives this responsibility of protecting the environment to the State/government. The doctrine mandates the government to protect and improve natural resources and regulate the activities of private parties who own such public property.Under this doctrine, It is duty of state as a trustee under Art 48A to protect and improve the environment and safeguard the forests and wildlife of the country. This Public trust doctrine has developed from Article 21 of the Constitution of India.The Polluter Pays Principle in India.


Case analysis M.C.Mehta Vs Kamal Nath & Ors

Background

One of the Respondents, Span Hotels Pvt. Ltd. a private company had built motels on the forest land adjacent to River Beas. The same was taken from government on lease period of 99 years. Subsequently, the respondents tried to change the flow of Beas River using heavy earthmovers. They also constructed large cemented embankments along the river and further tried to encroach upon the surrounding barren forest land. Moreover, it transpire that the various acts of the Respondents were authorized by the Forest Department of Kulu. It is further alleged that Mr. Kamal Nath, the one Respondent too was an interested party in the deal.

He was the Minister-in-charge, Department of Environment and Forests at the time of signing of the lease deed between Span Hotels and the Himachal Government. The Supreme Court took Suo Moto notice of article from news that appeared in the Indian Express on February 25, 1999. The article read, “Kamal Nath dares the mighty Beas to keep his dreams afloat”. The Apex Court ordered the (CPCB) Central pollution control board to file a report post the inspection of the area. The Report mentioned that the area was highly vulnerable with Beas being in an moveable state. It further advised Planning long-term and flood control in Kulu.


Facts of the Case

(1) Kamal Nath who was the Minister of Environment and Forests had direct links with this company.

(2) The company encroached upon 27.12 big has forest land also included in that land. The land was regularised and subsequently leased out to the company on 11th April 19.

(3) This encroachment had an impact on the course of river Beas. The Span Resorts moved bulldozers and movers on course of river second time for than 5 Months.

(4) In September, 1993, these activities by the company caused floods in the river and a property worth Rs. 105 Crores was destroyed.


Arguments in Favour and Oppose

Petitioner – M.C. Mehta, who has been pursuing this case with the usual ability and enthusiastic way, has contended that if someone disturbing the ecological balance and play with the innate conditions of rivers, forests, air and water, which are offerings of nature, he/she would be at offence of violating not just the Fundamental Rights, guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution, but also for violating the fundamental duties under Article 51A(g) which provides that it shall be the duty of every citizen to look after and develop the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife and to show compassion for living beings or creatures .

Respondent – The Minister of Environment and Forests deny the allegations and contended that he had wrongly been made a party to the petition. Furthermore, Mr. Kamal Nath also contended that the press reports were mala fide and were published with an intention of destroying his reputation. One of the Respondent contend that the course of the river was not changed with mala fide intention and that measures had been taken to prevent erosion. It was argued that the Divisional Forest Officer given permission to Span Motels to conduct the necessity work subject to certain conditions. It was also argued that the construction was carried out from the land under Span Motel’s possession and surrounding area for the protection of the that land from large floods in the future.


Decision of Supreme Court

In this case, specific forest land which was situated at the River Beas was given for lease to the Motel by the state government. In order for the Motel to be safe from the future floods from the river, the Motel attempted to change the river’s natural flow. When the supreme court came to know through a publication in newspaper that the Motel is planning to change the natural course of the water, the supreme court interfered to stop the actions done by Motel.

The supreme court, in this case, introduced the Public Trust Doctrine and stated that certain natural resources (public properties)like water, air, sea and forest are very important for living which cannot be taken by anyone in person. The honourable court detain that certain natural resources are public property and not private property and are to be managed in trust by the government of country or state for the benefit of the public at large.

The court put a great responsibility on the state by making it a duty of the state to protect the natural resources. It further observed that it is the duty of people from each generation to protect and preserve the natural resources for the future generation. It also stressed that wherever there is no law relating to the protection of natural resources, the doctrine of the public trust can be used to make decisions.

Mentioning all the importance of protecting the environment and the natural bodies, the Supreme Court applied the polluter pays principal amount and directed the Motel to pay compensation for the destruction it has done in such an ecologically fragile land.


Conclusion

The Pioneer M.C.Mehta set another example by this case. In this case Supreme Court decision originated Public Trust Doctrine in India. This Doctrine helps in protecting the environment and natural resources from over- exploitation. There is a responsibility of state to preserve the natural resources and environment for the betterment of living beings. Further this doctrine applied in many decisions after that few are Majra Singh v. Indian Oil Corporation, and M.I. Builders v Radhey Shyam Sahu.


Mentioned Cases:

1. Majra Singh v. Indian Oil Corporation

2. M.I. Builders v Radhey Shyam Sahu

References:

1. S. C. Tripathi, Environmental Law Book

2. P. Leelakrishnan, Environmental Law in India

3. Indian Kanoon.org

4. Ielrc.org

5. Lawfoyer.in

6. SCC online

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