The doctrine of the Public Trust-A way to Environmental Protection

Blogpost: Karun Tyagi

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 wholly unjustified to make them a subject of private ownership. The said resources being a gift of nature, they should be made freely available to everyone irrespective of their status in life. The doctrine commands upon the Government to protect the resources for the enjoyment of the general public rather than to permit their use for private ownership or commercial purposes. It mandates affirmative state action for effective management of resources and empowers citizens to question ineffective management of natural resources. The doctrine combines the guarantee of public access to public trust resources with a requirement of public accountability in respect of decision-making regarding such resources. Moreover, not only can it be used to protect the public from the poor application of planning law or environmental impact assessment, but it also has an intergenerational dimension.

The Public Trust Doctrine originated from Roman law. It has been extended in recent years which placed the government liable for breach of trust if they do not protect the resources in which the public has their trust. If we see it in a wider form then it is a tool to protect the environment which the court possesses. The public trust doctrine is a principle that clearly says that certain resources are for the public and the government is responsible to protect them. According to the Doctrine of trust, the State is the trustee of all national resources which are naturally meant for public use and delight. The general 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 responsibility to shield the natural resources; these resources are meant for public use, not for personal use.

In India, the doctrine is first mentioned in M.C. Mehta v Kamal Nath and others where the Indian Supreme Court applied public trust concerning the protection and preservation of natural resources. In this case, the State Government granted a lease of riparian forestland to a private company for commercial purposes. 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 to divert its course and to save the motel from future floods. The Supreme Court initiated suo motu action based on the newspaper item because the facts disclosed, if true, would be a serious act of environmental degradation.

The 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. The 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. 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 justifiable reason to rule out the application of the public trust doctrine in all ecosystems in India.

In this case, the 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 the public trust doctrine when there is no legislation to protect 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.

The Public trust doctrine is a great way to ensure the protection of the environment as it checks the management of the state and ensures good management of natural resources. It is a tool to address the increasing degradation of the environment. The public trust doctrine is an effective legal framework to solve the environmental conflicts for which India does not have proper laws and legislations. By invoking the Public trust doctrine, we can promote the protection of the earth and its resources.

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