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Public Trust Doctrine: vis-à-vis Property Law

Increasing threats to the environment caused by increasing individualistic needs has stimulated the attention of policymakers round the globe on an expeditious need to deal with this sensitive menace and form a robust framework of governance for this critical concern of environmental protection and settle the dispute between individual private use and broad need of human.[1]

Though the requirement seems inevitable in the contemporary world to protect the bundle of rights of public at large, the Doctrine of Public Trust was developed by ancient Roman Empire which primarily rested on the principle that the natural resources like air, seas, rivers, shores, forests, mountains have such great importance to people at large so the ownership of whole is held by the public and the government in power holds that property merely as a trustee.

Apart from the history, this doctrine runs parallel to another doctrine of Sustainable development which mentions that we, the current generation while utilization of resources while development and under the head of industrialization and urbanization should keep in due consideration that such resources remain available for the use of future generation.[2]

The consensus between both these doctrines lead to the rationale of governance of common public property as public trust acts a tool for general application for citizens seeking to develop a legal approach to resource management where as sustainable development acts as a precautionary doctrine to stop exploitation under the guise of development.

Nature of Public Trust

Renowned professor, Joseph L. Sax observes that Public Trust is a protection against private goals which incurs in situations where governmental regulation infringes with same. Hence, it is an amalgamation of procedural and substantive protection.[3] Thus, as observed in the theory of sustainable development, we should not deteriorate the resources wherein it shall become extinct.

PTD aims to serve 2 major objectives[4]:

  1. Mandating the state to take affirmative action for an effective management of resources;
  2. Empowering citizens at large to question the ineffective management of natural resources.
Overtime, PTD has only evolved from its limited blanket of simply protecting rights to an check on state's action which is merely a trustee of all the holdings.

Hence, the PTD imposes restrictions on government for effective protection of public trust[5]:

  1. The property which is subject to the trust may just not only be used for a public purpose but also must be held available and stored for use by the general public;
  2. The property are in nature of gift and they may not be sold, even for a fair cash equivalent;
  3. The property must be maintained for particular uses wherein limits need to be demarcated beforehand.
Thus, the contemporary theory of Public Trust also lies under the ambit and as an instrument of democracy[6] as we enjoy in India.
Democracy as we understand from the Greek bifurcation is power of the people or wherein the supreme power is vested or ruled by the majority of people exercisable either directly or indirectly.[7]
Thus, to counteract the influence of private players with help of administrative wing, the public trust policies encourage the development of non-interference of sovereign which primarily was supposed to protect the public interests seemingly have been interfering with same.

The Evolution of doctrine

The Doctrine evinced and was framed from the famous US Supreme Court case of Illinois Central Railroad v. Illinois[8], where in 1869 the Illinois legislature attempted to grant entire lakeshore of Chicago to private railroad. The Court held that the title of disputed land in this case was a title held in trust. And the land was of the people and they enjoyed the rights and liberties free from obstruction of any private parties. Hence, abdicating general control shall not be consistent with state's duty as a trust as it simply preserves the land and waters for public use.

This outlines the 3 elements of PTD:[9]

  1. Sovereign holds resources, here property, in trust for common good;
  2. Public has rights of resource protection;
  3. Democracy is preserved even by judiciary to protect rights invested in people.

Further, the doctrine evolved in the case of Could v. Greylock Reservation Commission,[10] where the preservation of Mount Greylock and laying public park was proposed in 1888 and state acquired 9000 acres of land for creating a commission for same and under the same scheme an aerial tramway, American resorts was proposed and commission was authorized to lease to tramway and other authority any portion of Mount (Proposed 4000 Acres). The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, held that both such lease and management agreement were void citing excess of delegation and to keep a check on such legislative grants of public lands.

Thus, we see that PTD has accreted since 19th Century in the US and the prevailing norm is to protect the property from private exploiters as Hon'ble Justice Weermantry very rightly observed in his ICJ Opinion of 1998 that[11], for the protection of doctrine of contemporary human rights it is a sine qua non to protect the environment as both runs parallel and it envisages from doctrine of sustainable development and protection of resources for the entire population at large in present and future generation.

Public Trust Doctrine in India

The Doctrine runs closely with the Grundnorm i.e. the Constitution of India as a measure for environmental-ecological preservation as a fundamental value. Further the Right to Life enshrined under Article 48A[12] and Article 21,[13] which embraces nature's gift and a clean environment essential for livelihood.

The landmark judgments relating to property law have further helped in evolution of the PTD.

The first case which alluded the doctrine in India is M.C. Mehta v. Kamalnath,[14] also known as Span Motel case, the SC suo moto took action by newspaper articles against a former environment minister Kamalnath to allow Span company where he allegedly had interest to construct a resort near basin of Beas River and in a regulated forest area and for the purpose of same, the natural course of river was been changed to stop it washing away the lawns and resort. This was contended to cause serious environmental degradation as landslides was very common in that area.

The Apex Court in this landmark case laid reliance on the English law laid PTD and held that air, sea, water and forests are of great importance to common public and any private ownership frittering or exhausting rights of all shall be nut justified and hence, resources for public use are nation's natural wealth and thus, cannot be converted to private ownership.
It was held in this case that entire motel be demolished and the entire site be restored as before for the conventional use of land by the public and further directed that incase of absence of laws of natural resources this doctrine is of utmost importance.

Further, in the case of M.I. Builders Pvt. Ltd. v. Radhey Shyam Sahu,[15] the Supreme Court again applied the PTD to stop the construction of an underground shopping complex in place of public garden in Lucknow. The builder was given all the rights according to lease of development, realizing profits not exceeding 10% of cost, lease shops, signatory on agreement.

The SC held that the agreement was unreasonable, unfair and atrocious as the Mahapalika itself was a trustee and the immense historical value was not even considered and to construct a shopping complex would violate the PTD as it would be a prejudice on part of public by depriving them the quality of life as entitled to them by the COI.

This case highlights on the point of SC where in Kamalnath it stated that in absence of a specific law, PTD needs to be applied but as an evolving principle PTD was brought under the ambit of Article 21 and thus making it a Fundamental Right.

The principle of trusteeship of state was cleared by the Court in the case of Shailesh R. Shah v. State of Gujarat,[16] that the state hold all resources such as lake, pond, natural gases etc in a positive duty as a trustee to preserve and safeguard their degradation and prevent them from extinction.

This caselaw yet again highlights the principle of sustainable development, which safeguards the resources for the future generation. Thus, it is evident that the court has elaborated the PTD to take into consideration, the concept of both the intra-generational and inter-generational equity.[17]

The research aimed not only to draw an analysis between the principle of public trust with the concept of property law, but it also aimed to adjoining the principle of sustainable development with the same rationale of increasing the effectiveness of environmental laws.

The research concludes by the notion of state as a trustee of the land and hence, a mandate is formed over the state to take affirmative action for management i.e. by the government in power as it simply means the person in authority and power of position and not any particular person. Further, it was cleared that apart from environmental protection, PTD now has evolved as a FR and the principles of legal jurisprudence further grow with the evolving times and the need of contemporary world but always protecting the resources and its owner i.e. We, the People.

  1. David Takacs, The Public Trust Doctrine, Environmental Human Rights, and the Future of Private Property, 16 N.Y.U. Envtl. L.J. 711, 711-713 (2008)
  2. Michael Redclift, The meaning of sustainable development, 23 Geoforum 395, 395 (1992).
  3. Joseph L. Sax, The Public Trust Doctrine in Natural Resource Law: Effective Judicial Intervention, 68 MICH.L.REV 471, 473-557 (1970).
  4. Tanvi Kapoor, Public Trust Doctrine, Legal Service India (Oct. 04, 2020, 10:04 AM),,a%20subject%20of%20private%20ownership.
  5. Minhas Joshi, Public Trust Doctrine in India, Ipleaders (Oct. 04, 2020, 10:30 AM),
  6. Joseph L. Sax, Supra note 3
  7. Democracy, Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, (Oct. 04, 2020 12:30 PM),
  8. Illinois Central Railroad v. Illinois, 146 US 537 (1892).
  9. David Takacs, The Public Trust Doctrine, Environmental Human Rights, and the Future of Private Property, 16 N.Y.U. Envtl. L.J. 711, 715 (2008).
  10. Could v. Greylock Reservation Commission, 350 Mass 410 (1966).
  11. David Takacs, The Public Trust Doctrine, Environmental Human Rights, and the Future of Private Property, 16 N.Y.U. Envtl. L.J. 711, 727 (2008).
  12. India Constitution. art. 48A.
  13. India Constitution. art. 21.
  14. M.C Mehta v. Kamalnath, [1997] 1 S.C.C. 388 (India).
  15. M.I. Builders Pvt. Ltd. v. Radhey Shyam Sahu, 1999 S.C.C. 464 (India).
  16. Shailesh R. Shah v. State of Gujarat, (2002) 43 (3) GLR 2295 (India).
  17. Tanvi Kapoor, Supra note 4.

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