The concept of the Public Trust Doctrine plays a vital role in the realm of
environmental law. It is the doctrine that is applied to protect the natural
resources of the earth and in consequence, the environment. In this discussion,
we delve into its origins, concept, and impact, both internationally and within
the context of India.
The roots of the Public Trust Doctrine can be traced back to the Byzantine
Emperor Justinian-I, who was the first to conceptualize this profound legal
principle. In India, Mahatma Gandhi, a visionary leader, championed and endorsed
this doctrine, recognizing its paramount importance in preserving our natural
Concept of Public Trust Doctrine:
The Public Trust Doctrine emphasizes that certain shared resources, such as
rivers, seashores, air, water, and forests, are held in trusteeship by the
government. This trusteeship is dedicated to ensuring free and unrestricted
access for the general public, with a focus on equitable utilization of these
The doctrine's fundamental objective is to ensure that all individuals have
equal access to natural resources, treating them as communal assets for the
benefit of society and the sustenance of life itself. As the custodian of these
resources, the state is entrusted with a duty
International Perspective on Public Trust Doctrine:
The modern revival of the Public Trust Doctrine took place in America
through landmark cases, such as:
- To act in the best interests of the public.
- To safeguard the well-being of flora and fauna, as well as wildlife.
- Arnold vs. Munday (1821, U.S.): The Supreme Court of New Jersey declared that ownership of the nation's navigable waters lies with the public, rather than the king or federal government, and that these waters are held in trust by the government.
- Illinois Central Railroad Co. vs. Illinois (1892, U.S.): The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the state cannot transfer its trust of resources to private ownership when the interests of the public are at stake.
Furthermore, the Stockholm Declaration of 1972 added an international
perspective. Principle 2 of this declaration underscores the need to safeguard
the Earth's natural resources, including air, water, land, flora, and fauna, for
the benefit of present and future generations through careful planning and
Indian Perspective on Public Trust Doctrine:
Article 21 of the Indian Constitution guarantees the fundamental right to life
and livelihood, while Article 39 emphasizes equitable distribution of material
resources. The state has a duty as a trustee under Article 48A to protect and
improve the environment and safeguard the forests and wildlife of the country.
- M.C. Mehta vs. Kamal Nath (Span Motel Case) (AIR 1997, SC):
This landmark case marked the first invocation of the Public Trust doctrine. The Supreme Court held that the lease of forest land for resort construction and the diversion of the river violated the doctrine and, consequently, were prohibited.
- M.I. Builders (P) Ltd vs. Radhey Shyam (AIR 1999, SC):
The Supreme Court ruled that builders who had destroyed a public park during the construction of a shopping complex should restore it, as the park was protected under the Public Trust doctrine derived from the right to life under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.
- Fomento Resorts & Hotels Ltd vs. Miguel Martins (AIR 2009, SC):
The Supreme Court reaffirmed that natural resources are common properties held by the state as a trustee on behalf of the people, especially future generations. Consequently, the state cannot transfer public trust properties to a private party if such a transfer interferes with the access rights of the public.
The Public Trust Doctrine stands as a beacon of hope for the preservation of our
planet's natural resources. Rooted in history and endorsed by legal and ethical
principles, it serves as a reminder of our collective responsibility to protect
and conserve the environment for ourselves and generations yet to come.
Written By: Tarun Bairagi