M.C. Mehta v. Kamal Nath & Ors.

Read this case analysis to know how the Public Trust Doctrine was applied by our Supreme Court to prevent environmental degradation caused due to leasing out of forest land by government for purposes of construction.
CITATION(1997) 1 SCC 388
COURTSupreme Court of India
JUDGES/CORAMJustice Kuldip Singh and Justice Ahmad,
DATE OF JUDGEMENT13.12.1996

Introduction

M.C. Mehta vs. Kamal Nath & Ors is a landmark judgment in environmental law jurisprudence in India delivered by the Supreme Court on 13 December 1996. The case deals with the application of public trust doctrine in India for the protection of natural resources. According to the Public Trust doctrine, certain natural resources like land, sea, air, forests belong to mankind as a whole and a commonly shared by them. They are believed to be a gift of nature that is held in public trust by the government. Hence, the government cannot distribute such resources amongst private individuals for their own commercial purposes. The doctrine owes its roots to the ancient Roman law.

Facts

The facts of the case are as follows: 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 on lease from the government for a period of 99 years. Subsequently, the respondents tried to divert the flow of Beas River using heavy earthmovers. They also constructed heavily cemented embankments along the river and further tried to encroach upon the surrounding barren forest land. Moreover, it transpired that the various acts of the Respondents were authorized by the Forest Department of Kullu. It is further alleged that Mr. Kamal Nath, one of the Respondents too was an interested party in the deal. He was further 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 motto notice of a news article 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 Central Pollution Control Board to file a report post the inspection of the area. The Report stated that the area is a question that was highly vulnerable with Beas being in an unstable state. It further advised a long term planning and flood control in Kullu.

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Issues

The main issue in the case was: Applicability of Public Trust Doctrine in India.

Summary of court decision and judgment

The court categorically asserted that the Public Trust doctrine was a part of the Indian legal system. The court in fact referred to a number of foreign precedents and legal statutes in support of the doctrine. The court based its conclusion on the idea of the finiteness of resources that in turn prompts the limitation on human activity. It further held that in its role as a public trustee of natural resources, the government was bound by three different restrictions: one, the trust property must be available for public use, two, the same cannot be sold at any price, three, the trust must be maintained for only certain uses. However, the court also carved out an exception to the public trust doctrine in cases of practical necessity that makes an appropriation of such property inevitable. Even in such scenarios, the government must not forget its duty as a public trustee to such property. Thus, by applying the doctrine of Public Trust in India, the court directed to cancel the lease deed that was granted to the Respondents on the public land. They were further asked to pay compensation as a means to restore the environment of the area.

Analysis

The judgment is a landmark decision and one of the most important cases relating to Environmental law in India since the court decided to transcend the traditional boundaries of Environmental jurisprudence in India. This led to the birth of a new concept that was otherwise alien to the law of the land. The Public Trust doctrine was successfully transplanted into the Indian legal system.

In addition to applying the Public Trust Doctrine, the court also rightfully applied two other principles of equal importance under Environmental Law. One, the polluter pays principle, by ordering the respondents to ensure the restoration and restitution of the ecology of the area. This is an important principle under the Environmental jurisprudence as it seeks to maintain a fine balance between the harm done and the subsequent correction. And the principle of deterrence, whereby the court imposes exemplary damages and additional fines on the Respondents to deter similar acts in the future. The imposition of exemplary costs can prove to be an effective deterrence for the polluters. Moreover, the money so received can be used to create a common fund. The same can be utilized in mitigating the harm done to our resources.

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The court by recognizing the doctrine of public trust has also upheld the spirit of the Indian Constitution. Article 48A under the Directive Principles of State Policy holds that the state as a duty to protect and preserve the environment, forest, and wildlife. A similar duty is also enshrined under Fundamental Duties of Indian citizens mentioned under Article 51A.

Conclusion

There is no doubt that post M.C. Mehta vs. Kamal Nath, the Public Trust Doctrine has been firmly ingrained in our legal system. This has been further affirmed by subsequent decisions on the same. In Shree Santh Dasganu Maharaja Singh v. Indian Oil Corporation, the National Green Tribunal in its order dated 28.08.2015 held that the doctrine was now a part and parcel of Article 21 of the Constitution of India and the state is under an obligation to protect the natural resources. In M.I. Builders v Radhey Shyam Sahu, the Supreme Court upheld the Public Trust doctrine by preventing the construction of a shopping complex in a park. Thus, repeatedly, the courts in India have applied the doctrine of Public trust to hold that the state is not an owner but a trustee of natural resources and is in turn responsible for their protection.