M.C. Mehta Vs. Kamal Nath

Estimated Reading Time: 11 minutes

Equivalent Citations: (1997)1 SCC 388

Introduction

The Doctrine of Public Trust, which has its origin in the Roman Law, primarily rests on the principle that certain resources including air, sea, waters and the forests have such a great importance to the people as a whole that it would be impolitic to make them a subject of private ownership. The said resources being naturally occurring, should be made freely available to everyone irrespective of the status in life. The doctrine admonishes the Government to protect the resources for the enjoyment of the general public rather permitting its private ownership or commercial usage. M.C. Mehta vs. Kamal Nath & Ors is a landmark and the first judgement in the jurisprudence of environmental law in India delivered by the Apex Court on 13 December 1996, dealing with its application in India for the protection of natural resources. 

Facts of the Case

The Indian Express published an article “Kamal Nath dares the mighty Beas to keep his dreams afloat”, reporting that a private company, Span Motels Private Ltd., owner of Span Resorts, to which the family of Kamal Nath, a former Minister of Environment and Forests, had a direct link, had built a motel on the forest land adjacent to bank of the River Beas. The same was taken on lease from the government for a period of 99 years commencing from 11th April 1994.

The Owners used bulldozers and earthmovers which led to a change of course of the Beas river, to protect the motel from floods due to the river in future. In September, 1993, these activities by the company prompted floods in the river and induced destruction of property worth Rs. 105 Crores. Later, it was discovered that the various acts of the Respondents were warranted by the Forest Department of Kullu. The Supreme Court taking suo motto cognizance of the news article that appeared in the Indian Express on February 25, 1999, ordered the Central Pollution Control Board to file a report post the inspection of the area. 

Issues in the Case

  1. Whether Mr. Kama Nath was wrongly inducted as respondent by the court in the present petition?
  2. The question regarding the justification of the activity carried out by the respondents were dealt with. 

Arguments

  1. The issue of Mr. Kamal Nath’s family holding majority of shares of the Motel Company was not disputed upon.
  2. Secondly, the respondents alleged that the construction activity was carried out with the prospect to protect the land possessed by the Motel Company. Moreover, the Divisional Forest Officer granted the permission to the motel to carry out such construction activities contingent upon the prerequisite that the department would not be accountable for any amount incurred by the Motel Company for the construction.

Summary of court decision and the Judgement

  1. The public trust doctrine, was considered to be included within the framework of law of the land.
  2. The Court quashed the lease-deed by which forested land was leased to the Motel Company and held that the construction activity carried out by the Motel Company was unjustified.
  3. The Motel was ordered to pay compensation by way of cost for the restitution of the environment and ecology of the area.
  4. The Motel was ordained to erect a boundary wall at a distance not exceeding 4 meters for the building of the motel, beyond which they were barred to use the land of the river basin.
  5. The Court restricted the Motel from discharging untreated effluent into the river. Further, the Himachal Pradesh Pollution Control Board was directed to inspect and keep an eye on the same.

Therefore, the Court was of the view that the attempts to divert the river stream and the construction activities was degrading to the environment, which led to the application of “The Public Trust Doctrine” and the “Polluter Pays Principle” in India. The Court quashed the lease- deed by which the forested land was leased and ordered the Motel to pay compensation by way of cost for the restitution of the environment and ecology of the area. 

Analysis

The Supreme Court took cognizance of a news report published in the Indian Express dated 25th February, 1996. The news reports stated that Mr. Kamal Nath, Minister of Environment and Forests, had direct links with Span Motels Pvt. Ltd., which owns the Span Resorts. The company had floated an ambitious venture called the Span Club which represented Kamal Nath’s aspiration of owning a house on the bank of the river Beas. The report affirmed the encroachment of the forest land, and its subsequent regularization. The regularization was done during the tenure of Mr. Kamal Nath as the Minister of Environment and Forests. The construction work of the Motel caused a lot of pollution and even diverted the course of the river as stated in the facts. Pollution being a civil wrong, is equivalent a tort committed against the community as a whole. The lease deed accorded to the Motel Company by the Government, lead to the Companys encroachment of 27.12 bighas of forest land. A PIL was filed by Mr. M.C. Mehta against Mr. Kamal Nath (the then Minister of Forest and Environment) and Ors. The court by way of the facts disclosed during the court hearing and submissions, held that it would be correct, that the said construction would be a serious act resulting in serious degradation of the environment.

Mr. Kamal Nath filed a counter affidavit averring that he has been wrongly arrayed as a respondent in this petition. The Court held that it was never disputed by Mr. Harish Salve, learned counsel appearing for Mr. Kamal Nath that majority of the shares in the Motel are possessed by the family of Mr. Kamal Nath. Mr. Kamal Nath’s family, the management of the company took over the Motel in the year 1981 and a fresh lease was signed on 29th September, 1981.

Mr. B.L. Mathur, on behalf of Span Motels Private Limited (‘the Motel Company’) filed an additional counter affidavit, which stated that the land was granted on a lease to Motel for a period of 99 years. Along with the additional affidavit the correspondence between the Motel and the Government was also annexed.

The court noted that Mr. Kamal Nath was the Minister in charge, Department of Environment and Forests at the time clearance was given and lease was granted. The motel was writing to the Government for the lease of additional forest land since 1988. It was only in November, 1933, when Mr. Kamal Nath was the Minister in charge that the lease was granted.

After carefully examining all the counter affidavits filed by the respondent parties the court established the following facts – 

  1. The lease hold area in possession of the motel is a part of the protected forest land owned by the State Government.
  2. The forest land measuring 26 bighas leased to the motel by the lease-deed dated April 11, 1994 is situated on the right back of the river.
  3. A wooden bridge on the spill channel connects the main motel land and the land acquired under the 1994 lease-deed.
  4. Out of the entire land leased to the motel in the ear 1994, 22.2 Bighas was encroached upon by the motel.
  5. The  flooding of the river took place in 1995, subsequent to which,  the motel has dredged the left side channel (the main channel) of the river to increase its capacity. This was done with a view to curtail the entry of water into the right side of the channel.
  6. The Motel Company had constructed 190meter wire crates on the bank of the river. The dredged material is piled up on the banks of the river. The dredging and channelizing of the left bank was done on a large scale with a view to keep high intensity of flow away from the motel.
  7. The dredging of the main channel of river was done by blasting the big boulders and removing the debris.
  8. The mouth of the natural channel has been blocked by wire crates and dumping of boulders.
  9. The construction work was not done under expert advice.
  10. The construction work undertaken by the motel for channelizing the main course has divided the main stream into two which can again change its course.

The Respondents contended that the construction activity was done by the Motel on the land under its possession with the aim of protecting the lease-hold land from floods and the same was permitted by Divisional Forest Officer contingent upon the pre-requisite that the department would be exempt from the liability to pay any expense incurred by the Motel Company for the said construction. The Apex Court, rejecting this contention held that, the forest lands which have been provided on lease to the Motel by the State Governments, are situated at the bank of the river Beas. The Beas being a young and dynamic river, it frequently changes its course. The Motel, which is located at the right bank of the river, comes under the jurisdiction of forest. The area being ecologically fragile should not be converted into private ownership.

The Supreme Court applied the ‘Doctrine of Public Trust’ to the case in hand. Doctrine of Public trust is an ancient legal doctrine which states that certain common properties such as rivers, seashore, forests and the air, were by Government in trusteeship, for its free and unimpeded use by the public at large. Under the Roman law these resources were either owned by no one specifically (res Nullius) or commonly by everyone (Res Communious). However, under the English common law, the Sovereign could own these resources but the same was limited in nature, that is to say, the Crown could not grant these properties to private owners if the effect interfered with the interest of the public with respect to navigation or fishing.  Public Trust Doctrine essentially rests on the rationale that certain resources like air, sea, water and the forests have such a great impact to the people as a whole that it would be unjustified to make them a subject of private ownership. The said resources being a gift of nature should be made freely available to everyone irrespective of the status in life.

The Supreme Court, in this case, analyzed the construction activities and the interference with the natural flow of the river and has declared that this activity, being degrading to the environment, is illegal in nature. There was a direct breach of The Public Trust Doctrine by the Himachal Pradesh Government due to the fact that the land granted through lease was ecologically fragile and was effected for commercial purposes. The Court quashed the lease- deed by which the forested land was leased to the Motel. Further the Apex Court held that the construction activity carried out by the Motel was not justified. The Motel was ordered to pay compensation by way of cost for the restitution of the environment and ecology of the area. It was ordered to construct a boundary wall at a distance of not more than 4 meters for the building of the motel beyond which they were dis allowed to use the land of the river basin. The Court restricted the Motel from discharging untreated effluent into the river. Himachal Pradesh Pollution Control Board was directed to inspect and keep a check on the Motel.

Application of the Doctrine of Public Trust

The Court held that issues in the present case point out towards a classic struggle between those members of the public who would preserve our ecological resources and those charged with administrative responsibilities who, under the pressures of the changing needs of an increasing complex society, find it necessary to encroach to some extent open lands heretofore considered in-violate to change. They however, held that the aesthetic use and the ecosystems of the country cannot be permitted to be eroded for private, commercial or any other good use unless the courts find it necessary, in good faith, for the public good and in public interest to encroach upon the said resources. However, no law made by any central or state legislature exists to resolve this conflict. They had stated that the resolution to this conflict is for the legislature and not the courts and the absence of specific legislation should not serve as a defence for the executive to fail to protect the ecological resources and assist its conversion into private ownership.

In the present case there is a large river basin which is a part of a protected forest land. This land was leased by the Government of Himachal Pradesh to the Motel Company for a commercial purpose. The Himachal Pradesh Government was held to have committed a patent breach of Public Trust by leasing an ecologically fragile land to the Motel management. The Public Trust Doctrine was applied in this case. This theory was first developed by the ancient Roman Empire. 

The Court held that: “Coming to the facts of the present case, large area of the bank of river Beas which is part of protected forest has been given on a lease purely for commercial purposes to the Motels. We have no hesitation in holding that the Himachal Pradesh Government committed patent breach of public trust by leasing the ecologically fragile land to the Motel management. Both the lease – transactions are in patent breach of the trust held by the State Government. The second lease granted in the year 1994 was virtually of the land which is a part of river-bed. Even the board in its report has recommended deleasing of the said area.”

Similar cases where public trust doctrine was applied:

a. M.I. Builders vs. Radhey Shyam Sahu (AIR 1999 SC 2468)

b. Mrs. Susetha vs. State of Tamil Nadu and Ors (AIR 2006 SC 2893)

Conclusion

The Supreme Court held the Doctrine of Public Trust to be a part of the law of the land. This doctrine provides the means for increasing the effectiveness of Environmental Impact Assessment Laws and makes it a duty of the state to protect the ecological resources of the country. The Public Trust Doctrine is an important tool to protect our environment from any kind of arbitrary decision taken by the Government officials. In this age, it is very important to have such kind of doctrine to protect the environment and to ensure sustainable development. Therefore, the Court was of the view that the attempts to divert the river stream and the construction activities was degrading to the environment, which led to the application of “The Public Trust Doctrine” and the “Polluter Pays Principle” in India. The Court quashed the lease- deed by which the forested land was leased and ordered the Motel to pay compensation by way of cost for the restitution of the environment and ecology of the area.  Further, this case had accurately implemented “The Public Trust Doctrine” and the “Polluter Pays Principle”. Hence, a relevant legislation framed on the bases of the above principles is the need of the hour. The courts decide on a case-by-case manner the subjects of the above principles which results in asymmetrical formation of judgements which act as precedents in subsequent cases. With relevant legislation concerning the above, there will be ease in the court proceedings. The Apex Court has also discussed the nature of laws which rise above with social values. The Court has expressed their dissatisfaction with that fact that the current legal doctrine rarely accounts for external environmental constraints, thus threatening the safety of the environmental stability. However, while having discussed the liability of Span Motels, the court had failed to address the personal liability of Mr. Kamal Nath, which on a personal note is a shortcoming of this judgement. 

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