public trust doctrine

Concept and Development of Public Trust Doctrine Over The Period of Time By Gaurav Khandelwal

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The Public Trust Doctrine is not a concept of the present, it develops at the time of the roman empire. public trust doctrine is a principle that primarily state that resources like air, sea, water, forests, and seashores everything that comes from nature, is a gift to the people from the nature side and the use it responsibly and should be freely available to all and it would be unjustified if made subject to private use.

Public trust doctrine is a legal principle established that sovereign (government) own and manage the natural resources for public use, as it signifies the fiduciary relationship in which one party is Trustor and another is Trustee, and here is nature is Trustor and government or public officer is Trustee, who manage the natural resources for the benefit of the public.

Prof. Joseph L. Sax’s observations “the public trust doctrine enjoins 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. The Public Trust Doctrine focuses on the public availability of natural resources but not for exploitation for the reasonable use of resources so that, the benefit of the public at large to be done and the resource with has been gifted by nature to humanity should be protected for extinct and that why the implicit restriction on the right of state has been placed of transferring public property to private.

If in case it affects the good of the public at large, and state mandate confirmative actions for the effective management of the natural resource and citizen should take action by approaching government if any misuse or ineffective of natural resource happen and government must empower the citizen to question the ineffective management thereof.

The government is responsible to manage to natural resources can see from two Latin maxims which states (i) Public officer is a public trust, and (ii) (In common law) when you are dealing with certain kind of public property we have to understand that they are inherently inalienable by the sovereign.  The first point which says, public office is public trust is a very short expression but when we go in-depth of it, it expresses very wider definition that public officer is a part of trust and responsibility for the maintaining of a natural resource. whereas the second point is easily understandable that the resources are not of individual & are of all, they are not private property which is hold by the sovereignty and transfer from one generation of the public to another, use by the public in a way which all preserve it for the future generation and then transfer further to future. and where is all connect with the principal of Sustainable development, which goals to maintain or sustaining the ability of the natural system to provide the natural resources and ecosystem without depletion of natural resources that meet the need of present and future without compromising the ability of future generation to meet their needs?

The Origin:

the origin of this doctrine is from the roman and English law. As the sovereign is the trustee of all-natural resource for the use of the public in a sustainable development manner. But centuries before these doctrine Indian vedas, scripts and Upanishads has told us about the protection of resources and resources which has provided by mother nature is available to all, In “Kautilya Arthashast” This treatise provides Lot Of knowledge about environment And its conservation. It describes the maintenance of public sanitation and preservation of the environment, forest And wildlife. The state must manage the affair affirmatively in preserving the environment and its resource and its responsibility of the ruler and administration to protect and think about the welfare of the environment and promote the proper use of natural resources

Indian Constitution and Public Trust Doctrine:

While seeking the various provision of Indian Constitution concerning to ‘environmental protection’ and thereby, to establish the fact that constitution of India is a supreme document in itself of trust and the state as trustee of all-natural resource and is under a legal duty to protect them. the protection provided by the constitution of India is under part III under article 21 express the right of the beneficiaries and in part IV under the directive principle of state policy, express the duties of the state is that trustee.

Article 21 state the fundamental right, right to life and personal liberty. right to life has very vast scope & extend and include the protection and preservation of nature’s gift. article 21 extend and include the right to a healthy environment and right to livelihood. the other aspect of life is the application of the public trust doctrine and to protect and preserve the public land.

Article 48A and 51A of part IV of the constitution of India also enhance the principle of jurisprudence, which are fundamental to our governance under the rule of law and tell about the duty of the state to protect of environment and wildlife, which now forms an integral part of Indian environmental jurisprudence.

Application of Doctrine by the Supreme Court Of India:

The first use of public trust doctrine is in the case of M.C Mehta Vs. Kamal Nath 1997(1) s.s.c 388. refer to the international use of public trust doctrine and in common law of U.K and American Law from where our law is derived of public trust doctrine and in common law there is bit restrictive prospect of the doctrine and in American law judicial Activism is used to in the case of Mono Lake case of California field by the environmental activist and in this motel case Supreme Court of India initiate a Suo-moto on report published in the newspaper and in this case,i it was found that it was illegally occupied and it belong to the forest department and after that motel sold to some relative of Kamal Nath who to save the motel from the future possibilities of flood effect, by interference with the  natural flow of river changing it flow and court held that land occupied was belong to forest land and “callous interference with the natural flow of River Beas” resulting in degradation of environment and court stated that”interfered with natural flow of the river by trying to block natural relief/spill channel of the river”.

We do not want to burden this judgment once again by repeating them in extenso. Equally, the Himachal Pradesh Government also was held to have committed a patent breach of public trust by leasing the ecological land to the Motel. And Court order by applying the polluter pays principle, that the responsible party will pay the compensation for the restitution of the environment and ecology in that area, it was a landmark decision by the court and make everyone realise that it is the responsibility of the state to protect and keep a proper check and if you do wrong you are liable to pay.

Majra Singh Vs. Indian Oil Corporation:

Where the petitioner objected to the situation of a plant for filling cylinders with liquefied petroleum gas. It was held that the judicature can only examine whether authorities have taken all precautions with a view to determining that laws coping with environment and pollution are given guardianship and a focus. Though the case was selected the premise of the precautionary principle, it confirmed that the public trust doctrine has become a part of the Indian legal thought processes. Within the High Court’s opinion, the doctrines are apart and parcel of Article 21 of the Constitution which there may be no dispute that the State is under an obligation to determine that forests, lake, and wildlife and environment are duly protected. Per the Court, the thought that the public features a right to expect certain lands and natural areas to retain their natural characteristics is finding its way into the law of the land. The court also orders to plant fast-growing plants and trees which will reduce the pollution and protect the right of public living theirs by protecting the right to a healthy environment and right to livelihood.

M.I Builder Vs. Radhey Shyam Sahu:

In this case, the supreme court has applied public trust doctrine. In this case, Lucknow Nagar Mahapalika has granted permission to the private builder to build an underground shopping complex over a public park, which was against the Municipal Act and Master plan of the city. Nad under this builder has to construct the complex at own cost and maximum profit it can make is 10% on each shop he sells and he is authorised to sell who so ever he wants to sell and authorised to sign on behalf of mahapalika.

Later on the matter went to the high court and high court quashed the agreement between the Nagar Mahapalika and Builder and order Mahapalika to restore the park within 3 months and it found out that Mahapalika never denied the importance of park from an environmental perspective but the reason it approved the project was the congestion in the market, which get the relief if the underground complex was build but after the survey done by the high court it was found, if the underground complex has to build then it would have caused more congestion in the market.


The public trust doctrine, it’s not just the doctrine for certain resources of such great importance to the people, and the said resources being a gift of nature, they should be made freely available to everyone irrespective of the status in life but it is also about the conserving the environment and maintain the sustainability. And Public authority should use such law to protect the status of public land status.

The supreme court in “Kamal Nath Case” the Supreme Court held that even if there is a separate and specific law to deal with the issue before the court, it may still apply public trust doctrine, if there is no suitable legislation to preserve the natural resources, the public authorities should take advantage of this doctrine to protect the public status of the land.

And In “M.I Builder case” The supreme court reinterpreted the relationship of trustee and beneficiary and the duties of a trustee. Park is built by the local authority for the benefit of the public and so that the public can gather and take the full utilisation of the park and benefit from the healthy environment of it. In effect, the local authorities in the position of trustee have the duty of thinking for the welfare of the public and with the concept of intra-generational and inter-generational equity maintain the resources.

This doctrine has very vided explanation which is not limited to the constitutional provision of Part III and IV, it can be further expressed through the way of judicial activism, as the exploitation increase and the circumstance change where there misuse public property by converting it into private property. which also help in keep check by a public authority over the natural resource and stop the exploitation of resource and conserve them for the future.

The Public Trust Doctrine is the way to release the authority, administration, or government of their duties to protect and preserve the environment and its resources, and to balance it while providing the resource for public use and protecting the resource from exploitation and end up at the verge of extinct. It is also the responsibility of the citizen to respect the environment and resource, which nature has provided, for the benefit of us.

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