The article 'All You need to know about the Public Trust Doctrine' describes that the state has a responsibility to conserve and prevent the overexploitation of the environment and natural resources.

The article 'All You need to know about the Public Trust Doctrine' describes that the state has a responsibility to conserve and prevent the overexploitation of the environment and natural resources. According to the World Population Review (WPR), “the possibility that India’s 1.417 billion people may have surpassed China’s population”. With the rapid increase in population, the usage of natural resources has also increased. We have limited resources with unlimited...

The article 'All You need to know about the Public Trust Doctrine' describes that the state has a responsibility to conserve and prevent the overexploitation of the environment and natural resources. According to the World Population Review (WPR),  “the possibility that India’s 1.417 billion people may have surpassed China’s population”. With the rapid increase in population, the usage of natural resources has also increased. We have limited resources with unlimited increasing demand for them, but to what extent?

The right to use natural resources is available to everyone, irrespective of what the person is. Natural resources are not subject to private ownership but are available to all. This basic concept gives rise to the doctrine of Public Trust by the Roman Empire. According to the public trust doctrine, the government should hold some resources in trust and manage them for the general welfare of the populace. According to the idea, the state and its government serve as the public's trustee, caring for and protecting the public's usage of natural resources such as air, forests, seashores, and navigable waterways.

Introduction

“The air, the water, and the sea are all common to the public and is entitled to be used by anyone due to the law of nature”......Justinian (The Roman King)

Around the globe and traversing hundreds of years, a perpetual tension has existed between the individuals who might delineate the Earth's abundance for private use and the individuals who might cautiously designate Earth's wealth to fulfil human needs. Private property, meaning securing or isolating Earth's assets for individual or for select use has its ardent promoters, in numerous areas its lawful status is blameless, and its belief system is unchallenged. In any case, a contending belief system, dating from times long ago, holds that a portion of Earth's wealth ought to never be sequestered for private use, must be left for the common satisfaction of the people, and must be managed by people with significant influence.

Over time, the theory of public trust has developed into one of the fundamental doctrines used by the judiciary to support governmental actions that obstruct the use of natural resources by the public. A much-needed check has been imposed on political authorities that wish to transfer state sovereignty over such natural resources to private parties as a result, of this doctrine's inclusion into the legal system.

Although the roots of this concept can be found in antiquity, and it has a long history in the United States, the Indian legal system adopted the idea in the famous case of M.C. Mehta v. Kamal Nath, (1997) 1 SCC 388. This doctrine evolved with time. In the recent judgment of TN Godavarman Thirumalpad v. Union of India, WP (Civil) No. 202 of 1995,  the bench of Justice L Nageswara Rao, BR Gavai and Aniruddha Boss observed that

“The Public Trust Doctrine is a part of the law of Land. The State also has to act as a trustee for the benefit of the general public in relation to natural resources so that sustainable development can be achieved in the long term. Such role of the State is more relevant today than, possibly, at any point of time in history with the threat of climate catastrophe resulting from global warming looming large.”

History & Origin of Public Trust Doctrine

Before the Public Trust Doctrine, the principle of common law governs the management of natural resources. According to some historians, the doctrine consists of fishing, wildlife management, and shooting game have their roots in English common law, which dates back to the Saxon invasion of England in around 450 AD and continues to maintain after following the Norman Conquest in 1066. The doctrine relating to fish, shorelines, and water has its origins in written regulations put into place by the Roman Emperor Justinian in 530 A.D.

After signing Magna Carta in 1215, the Public Trust Doctrine got recognition, and after several modifications in common law in 1641 and 1647, the Colonial Ordinance boosted the concept of Doctrine. The government has its duty to manage and conserve fish and wildlife by positively establishing and managing the administrative system for the protection and conservation of wildlife and fishery resources.

Devised 1,500 years earlier during the Roman Empire, law researchers named this the ‘Public Trust Doctrine’. This Doctrine is upheld as a commendable structure, an ethic as the law continuously changes, and advances. As of late, analysts, activists, and legal scholars have begun have started examining the privileges of individuals to get to and acknowledge distinctive fundamental resources and assets the Earth so generously yields.

Purpose of Public Trust Doctrine

The public trust doctrine mainly serves two purposes. First, it requires affirmative governmental action for effective resource management and gives citizens the authority to challenge ineffective resource management. It is a common law notion that academics have defined and discussed in the United States and the United Kingdom. The government holds a variety of common resources in trust for the unhindered use of the public, including rivers, the coastline, and the air. Therefore, if the grant would conflict with the public interest, the sovereign could not transfer properties held in the public trust to a private entity.  

Scope of Public Trust Doctrine

The Public trust doctrine is founded on the idea that, regardless of formal ownership, the public has inalienable rights to particular lands and resources, and that the state retains certain rights in such lands and resources in trust for the public. This idea of public rights has two historical foundations.

  • In 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.”
  • In English Common Law, “it is 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”.  

Kinds of Restrictions imposed by the Public Trust Doctrine

Being a gift from nature, resources like the air, sea, and wood should be made freely available to everyone, regardless of social standing. According to the idea, the government must protect resources so that everyone can enjoy them, as opposed to allowing their use for private or commercial gain. According to Professor Sax, the Public Trust Doctrine places the following restriction on political authority. Public trust is frequently used to impose three different limitations on governmental power.

(i) The property covered by the trust must not only be used for public purposes but must also be kept accessible to the public.

(ii) it cannot sell the property, not even for a fair cash equivalent.

(iii) it must maintain the property for specific uses.

Is Public Trust Doctrine applicable in India?

The Indian Constitution, with its humanist outlook, has elevated environmental and ecological protection to the status of a core value. The protection and preservation of nature's gift, without which life ceases to be viable and human rights become a mere simulacrum, is embraced by the higher jurisprudence of Article 21 of the Constitution (right to life). In other words, Article 21 right to life has been expanded to include the right to a wholesome environment and the right to a means of subsistence. The use of the public trust concept to safeguard and preserve public lands is the third part of the right to life. The public trust doctrine is a well-established idea in Indian law; thus when Indian courts have applied it, they have taken that into account besides international law.

The Constitution specifically addresses environmental preservation in Articles 48 A and 51 A. Article 48 A makes the state’s improvement and protection of the environment, as well as its preservation of the nation's forests and wildlife, necessary. Article 51 A addresses the fundamental responsibilities of citizens. Citizens are required by Article 51 A, subsection (g), to preserve and enhance the environment.

The public trust doctrine is a part of the jurisprudence of the Indian legal system, which is based on English Common Law. The state holds all natural resources, which are intended for public use and enjoyment, in trust. The forests, seashore, flowing streams, air, and ecologically delicate territories benefit the general public. The state has a legal obligation to safeguard natural resources because it is its trustee. These assets cannot be changed from public usage to private ownership.

The Doctrine of Public Trust in India has changed over time since the Hon'ble Supreme Court first mentioned it in the case of M.C. Mehta v. Kamal Nath, where it was extensively explored, along with its position in the United States of America and English Law.

Important Case Laws

1. M.C. Mehta v. Kamal Nath, (1997) 1 SCC 388

As per the Supreme Court ruling, the Public Trust Doctrine is based primarily on the idea that certain resources, such as wood, air, sea, and seas, are significant to the entire population so it would be improper to subject them to private ownership. The court noted that a nation's natural riches include things like rivers, forests, minerals, and other resources. One generation must not share or use these resources up. Every generation has a responsibility to best use and preserve the nation's natural resources for all the following generations.

As a result, the Public Trust doctrine is recognised by the legal system. The court concluded that the application of the Doctrine cannot be disregarded for any legitimate reason. The Court ordered the developer to pay compensation by way of costs for the restoration of the area's ecology and ecosystem, applying the "polluter pays" principle. It was easy to conclude that by leasing the ecologically vulnerable area to the developers, the Himachal Pradesh government had flagrantly violated the public trust.

2. Majra Singh v. Indian Oil Corporation, AIR 1999 J&K 81

The petitioner objected to the proposed site of a facility for liquefied petroleum gas cylinder filling. The High Court can only assess whether the government has taken all necessary efforts to ensure that laws about the environment and pollution have received the proper care and attention. It showed how the Public Trust Doctrine has permeated the Indian legal doctrine. According to the High Court, the notion is an integral component of Article 21 of the Constitution, and the state must ensure that forests, lakes, wildlife, and the environment are properly safeguarded.

3. Builders v. Radhey Shyam Sahu, AIR 1999 SC 2468

The court prevented the building of the shopping centre in the place of a public garden by citing the garden as a public resource and using the public trust theory under the right to life. The court said that the park is a common area with historical significance. The court used the M.C. Mehta case and the Public trust concept as examples. According to the court, approving the construction would violate Article 21 of the constitution's guarantee of the public right to a high standard of living. The court held that the government had a duty under the public trust theory, which applies in India, to maintain the public park for the benefit of the citizens.

4. M. Chinnappa v. UOI, AIR 2003 SC 724

The petitioner objected to the proposed site of a facility for liquefied petroleum gas cylinder filling. The High Court can only assess whether the government has taken all necessary efforts to ensure that laws about the environment and pollution have received the proper care and attention. It showed how the Public Trust Doctrine has permeated the Indian legal doctrine. According to the High Court, the notion is an integral component of Article 21 of the Constitution, and the state must ensure that forests, lakes, wildlife, and the environment are properly safeguarded.

5. State of West Bengal v. Kesoram Industries Ltd., (2004) 10 SCC 201

Deep underground water is owned by the State in the sense that the Doctrine of Public Trust applies to it, according to this doctrine, which was once again followed. The entire society owns the groundwater, which is seen as a component of the nation's wealth. Water is nectar that sustains life on earth, hence it is the state's responsibility to safeguard groundwater from overuse.

6. Intellectual Forum v. State of Andhra Pradesh, (2006) 3 SCC 549

The Court ruled that the State is a trustee of the public for all natural resources, including lakes, and that the State may only dispose of these resources in ways that are consistent with this trust.

7. Fomento Resorts and hotels Ltd. v. Minguel Martins, (2009) 3 SCC 571

The Court reaffirmed the doctrine and noted that the state, acting in the capacity of trustee for the public, and particularly for future generations, holds natural resources, such as forests, water bodies, rivers, etc.

8. Central for Public interest Litigation v. UOI, (2012) 3 SCC 1

The Hon'ble Supreme Court in this case held the State to be the “trustee” of the “spectrum,” which belongs to the general public, while also holding the "spectrum" to be a rare commodity and a natural resource.

9. TN Godavarman Thirumalpad v. Union of India, WP (Civil) No. 202 of 1995

To promote sustainable development over the long run, a bench of Justices L Nageswara Rao, BR Gavai, and Aniruddha Bose observed that trustees for the benefit of the public about the natural resources. As per the court order, each protected forest is required to have an Eco-Sensitive Zone (ESZ) of one kilometre. The court noted that the state disregarded its responsibility as a custodian of the land's natural resources by defending mining in Jamuna Ramgarh and its surroundings, primarily based on the possibility of quick financial advantages.

Conclusion

The Public Trust Doctrine is an excellent doctrine for ensuring environmental protection since it examines government administration and ensures effective management of natural resources. It is a tool to combat the worsening of environmental degradation. The public trust doctrine provides a strong legal foundation for resolving environmental disputes for which India lacks laws and regulations. We can advocate for the preservation of the environment and its resources by using the public trust theory. We expect the government to uphold the interests of its people, carry out its duties with its best interests in mind, and include the people in any decision-making processes involving the management of the nation's natural resources.

According to Article 48A of the Indian Constitution, the state must preserve and defend the nation's forests, animals, and environment. Article 48A, a Directive Principle of State Policy, must be taken into consideration by the state when administering Article 21 (right to life). A right to a healthy environment has been added to the state's trusteeship obligations.

References

[1] Vijay K.Sondhai, The Doctrine of Public Trust, Available Here

[2] Tanvi Kapoor, Public Trust Doctrine, Available Here

Important Links

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Tanmay Mehra

Tanmay Mehra

Tanmay Mehra is a law graduate with a Bachelor's in Business Administration and Law (B.B.A.LL.B.) from National Law University Odisha, Cuttack. Currently, she is aspiring to crack the Judicial Service examination.

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