By- Diksha Gupta & Adhish Saxena

Hon'ble Judges:  S.Saghir Ahmed and Kuldip Singh.

Citation of the Case: (1997)1 SCC 388.,AIR 2000 SC 1997, MANU/SC/0416/2000                                 

Name of the parties & their Councils-

For Petitioner/Appellant/Plaintiff:  M.C. Mehta and Seema Midha, Advs

For Respondent/Defendant:  H.N. Salve, Sr. Adv., M.S. Vashisht, Rajiv Dutta, Shiv Pujan Singh, J.S. Atri, L.R. Rath, Advs.Altaf Ahmad, Additional Solicitor Gen. N.C. Kochar, G.L. Sanghi, Sr. Advs., Naresh K. Sharma, N.S. Vashist, Uday Kumar, Kapil Sharma, Enakshi kulshrestha, Rajiv Dutta, Vijay Panjwani, Anish Garg, (in-person) for (Hotel Hilton), B.V. Balram Das, Devendra S

Laws & Rules involved:
Constitution of India
 – Article 32

Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974 – Sections 24

Environmental Law 1986

Arguments by the parties:

Arguments for the Plaintiff

Mr. M.C. Mehta, who has been pursuing this case with the usual vigor and vehemence, has contended that if someone disturbs the ecological balance and tinkers with the innate conditions of rivers, forests, air and water, which are the offerings of nature, he/she would be at fault of violating not just the Fundamental Rights, guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution, but also for violating the fundamental duties to look after environment 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 creatures.[1]

Arguments for the defendants

  • Whatever erection activity was done by the motel on the land under its custody and on the region around, if any, was done with a view to shield the lease-hold land from floods.
  • Divisional Forest Officer allowed the motel to carry out the essential works subject matter to the state of affairs that the department would not be accountable to pay any amount incurred for the said rationale by the motel.

However, it could be easily ascertained from the facts that the Motel had made diverse erections on the surrounding region and on the banks of the river.

Facts & Issue:

 The State Government of Himachal Pradesh had leased a riparian forestland to a private company, “Span Motels Private Limited”. The said company wanted to build a club at bank of River Beas. The Defendant’s family, Kamal Nath, had direct link with the private company.[2]

The Club represented the Defendant’s vision to have a house on the bank of River Beas in the gloom of the snow-capped Zanskar ranges. The Defendant being a Minister of Environment and Forest regularized this project.

The Supreme Court took cognizance of the matter through a newspaper article published in the Indian Express dated February 25, 1996, under the caption “Kamal Nath dares the mighty Beas to keep his dreams afloat”.

It was contended by the Appellant that since five months, the private company has been moving bulldozers and earth movers to turn the course of the Beas for a second time.[3] The Court considered the affidavits filed by the Defendant and the company.

The area had been facing regular flooding and changing the direction of course would lead major aggravated environmental damage. The Court also considered different assessments made by the government departments pertaining to the project.

However, there was no bare text which carved out a clear meaning for Public Trust Doctrine; the Supreme Court relied profoundly on English and American Courts explanation of the term.


  1. Whether or not Mr. Kamal Nath has been precisely inducted as the Defendant in the writ petition?
  2. Whether or not the erection activity done by M/s SMPL was done with a vision to shield the charter hold land from floods?
  3. Whether or not the Public trust Doctrine is a part of the Indian Legal system?

Observation of the court:

The court observed-

“The issues presented in this case demonstrate the classic struggle between those members of the public who would preserve our rivers, forests, parks and open lands in their pristine purity and those charged with administrative responsibilities who, under the pressures of the changing needs of an increasingly complex society, find it necessary to encroach to some extent upon open lands heretofore considered inviolate to change. The resolution of this conflict in any given case is for the legislature and not the courts.”[4]

The Supreme Court reviewed a number of U.S. Court decisions, particularly the judgment of the Supreme Court of California in the Mono Lake Case.[5] In Mono Lake, the environmentalist filed a case in opposition to the city of Los Angeles which was drawing water from streams that fed Mono Lake, a large saline lake rich in brine shrimps and bird life.[6]

As a result of the diversion, the lake level was falling, marring the scenic beauty and imperiling the birds. Upholding the plaintiff’s claim that the public trust doctrine could be used to supersede Los Angeles’s water diversion, the California Supreme Court held.[7]

“Thus, the public trust is more than an affirmation of state power to use public property for public purposes. It is an affirmation o f the duty o f the state to protect the people s common heritage o f streams, lakes, marshlands and tidelands, surrendering that right o f protection only in rare cases when the abandonment o f that right is consistent with the purposes o f the trust. The state has an affirmative duty to take the public trust in to account in the planning and allocation o f water resources and to protect public trust use whenever feasible…………”


The Supreme Court in this case stated that the Public Trust Doctrine first and foremost rests on the principle that the resources like air, sea, waters and forests have such great significance to the people as a whole that it would be unfair to make them a subject matter of private ownership. The court observed that:

“As rivers, forests, minerals and such different resources constitute a country’s normal riches. These resources are not to be misused and depleted by any one era. Each era owes an obligation to every succeeding era to create and save the normal resources of the country in the most ideal way. It is in light of a legitimate concern for humanity. It is in light of a legitimate concern for the country. Therefore, the Public Trust doctrine is a piece of the rule that everyone must follow. The court additionally decided that there is no any legitimate motivation to preclude the utilization of the Public Trust Doctrine in all biological communities in India…”[8]

The public trust doctrine, as said by the Court in the judgment was an element of the law of the land. The former approval granted by the Government of India, Ministry of Environment and Forest and the lease-deed dated 11.04.1994 in support of the Motel were quashed.

The lease granted to the Motel by the said lease-deed in respect of 27 bighas and 12 biswas of region, is cancelled and set aside. The Himachal Pradesh Government shall take over the region and restore it to its original-natural environment. The Motel shall pay compensation by way of cost for the restitution of the environment and ecology of the area. The contamination caused by various constitutions made by the Motel in the riverbed and the banks on the river Beas have to be removed and reversed.[9]

Position of law before & after the case:

Since MC Mehta v Kamal Nath, the public trust doctrine has been held to be applicable “to all ecosystems operating in … natural resources.”[10] Unlike the American case law which conventionally has limited the relevance of the doctrine to water bodies, Indian courts have not only applied the Public Trust Doctrine to water bodies and rivers but also to shield forests, public parks, minerals, natural gas, and even radio frequencies (such as those used for mobile phone networks) .[11]

The Doctrine of Public Trust makes it obvious that the state is not the owner of the natural resources in the country but a trustee who holds fiduciary bond with the public. By accepting this task the government is expected to be loyal to the interests of its citizens and to discharge its duty with the interest of the society at heart and involve them in decision-making process concerning the management of natural resources in the country.

The Public Trust Doctrine may provide the means for escalating the efficiency of ecological impact review laws. Thus, under the doctrine, the State has a duty as a trustee under Art 48A to look after and develop the environment and protect the forests and wildlife of the nation.

While applying Art 21 (right to life), the state is gratified to take account of Art 48A, a Directive Principle of State Policy. The state’s trusteeship duty has been extended to embrace a right to a healthy environment.

It is remarkable to note that in the Kamal Nath case the Supreme Court held that even if there is a separate and an unambiguous law to deal with the question before the Court, it may still apply public trust doctrine. If there is no suitable legislation to conserve the natural resources, the public authorities should take advantage of this doctrine in count to the fact that there was a branch of municipal law.

Also the Supreme Court in M.I. builders[12], affirmed that public trust doctrine has grown from Article 21 of the constitution. By attaching this doctrine to the fundamental right to life, the Supreme Court appears to be keen to expand the relevance of this doctrine.

It seems that the court would give priority to right to life when the public trust doctrine, as a part of right to a safe and healthy environment, is challenged by any further fundamental rights.
Additionally by ordering the Mahapalika to re-establish the park to its original beauty, the Supreme Court redefined the duties of a trustee to its beneficiaries or the users of the recreational area.

In consequence, it united the local authorities’ duty as a trustee with the theory of intra-generational and inter-generational justice. Moreover, the case came before the court as a judicial assessment and not as a challenge against the verdict of the government from a beneficiary.

The doctrine acts as a check upon administrative stroke by providing a system for judicial or resource distribution decisions. So, public trust doctrine could provide as a supplementary device for ecological protection particularly where executive discretion has been abused.[13]


M.C Mehta v. Kamal Nath [14] is the first of its type to develop the notion of Doctrine of Public Trust. The Doctrine was a budding perception and there were no recognized cases concerning to such doctrine.

Owing to Article 48A and Article 51(A) (g) and relying on judgments of English and American courts, the Supreme Court has precisely dealt with the conception.

The judgment delivered by a division bench comprising of Justices Kuldip Singh and Saiyed Ahmad. Firstly, the Court had appropriately resolute on the issue of infringement by the private company defining Public Trust Doctrine. It clearly acknowledged that the Indian legal structure is based on the English Common Law and owing to the fact that State is just a trustee of the natural assets which are only meant for public use.

State cannot transfer such or alter any such resource to suit their expediency according to their whims and fancies.

This point is properly dealt with as it is the fundamental duty under Article 48A which was introduced by the 42nd Amendment Act, 1976 to guard and develop the environment and safeguard the natural resources and wildlife.


The Doctrine of Public Trust is an extremely functional tool in the hands of our Judiciary to save from harm and protect the environment from the capricious and unfair actions of the governmental authorities.

These days the manipulate of private actors (corporate bodies) is rising worldwide, there are high chances of abuse of the natural resources or funding of these resources in support of private players by the governments.

In such cases the Doctrine of Public Trust would work as an effectual check of the exercise of rule by government with regard to dealings and administration of natural resources.

[1] MANU/SC/0416/2000

[2]  “PM declares his FDs, Kamal Nath & Deora business interests”. Indian Express. 9 June 2011. Retrieved 14 May 2013.

[3] Para 1 of the Judgment

[4] M C Mehta Vs Kamal Nath (1997) 1 SCC 388.

[5] National Audubon Society Vs Superior Court of Alpine Country, 33 Cal 3d 419, as cited in Shyam Divan and Armin Rosencranz, Environmental Law and Policy in India ; Cases, Materials and Statutes, (2001), p. 169.

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

[8] M C Mehta Vs Kamal Nath (1997) 1 SCC 388.

[9]  “Land Mark Cases”.mcmef.org Archived from the original on 27 December 2008. Retrieved 9 January 2013.

[10] MANU/SC/0416/2000

[11] http://www.progressivereform.org/CPRBlog.cfm?idBlog=612C3B8C-AB0E-C2F9-F3EE8EAC3404DAE9

[12] (1999) 6 SCC 464.

[13] http://www.legalservicesindia.com/article/article/notion-of-doctrine-of-public-trust-in-india-1429-1.html

[14] (1997) 1 SCC 388.

Articles Case Notes

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