Doctrine of Public Trust and its Application in India

Doctrine of Public Trust and its Application in India

Concept of Trust according to Law

According to the Common Law Jurisprudence, trust is considered as “the relationship between one person having an equitable relationship between one person having an equitable ownership in property and another person owning the legal title to such property”.
When the same concept is applied in the context of Doctrine of Public Trust, it means that the legal title vests with the State whereas the equitable right is vested with the public. Hence, it can be said that the State plays the role of a trustee and takes up the responsibility to manage the property for the interest of the public.

Doctrine of Public Trust

  • Natural resources are a gift of nature, so they must be freely available to every human being irrespective of his/her status in life. Certain resources like air, water, forests and ocean possess great public importance to all the citizens and none of those resources can be made subject to private ownership and if done so would be considered a legal mistake.
  • Public i.e. citizens of the country are the beneficiaries and the State plays the role of a trustee and is under a legal obligation to protect its natural resources. The Doctrine orders the Government for the protection of its natural resources so that it can be enjoyed by all the citizens equally rather than restricting its use only to private ownership or for other commercial purposes.

History of development of the Doctrine of Public Trust

  • The origins of the Doctrine of Public trust dates back to the Roman era. As per the Institutes of Justinian, “by the law of nature, these things are common to mankind the air, running water, the sea and consequently the shores of the sea”. Nevertheless procurement of property based on the Roman ideologies were based on the principle of abundance but in the recent times due to overuse leading to lack to resources, this concept of public trust depends entirely on ecological independence.
  • The concept of public trust in England mainly appears in the common law especially in the works of Flecta and Bracton, Magna Charta and the commentary given by Blackstone. All these sources have been cited as precedents for the concepts of common rights to fishing and navigation.
  • Through the landmark case of Illionois Central railway Co. v. Illinois in USA, the Supreme Court of United States held that a grant to the title which is held in public trust can be given only when it does not weaken public interest or where the grant can improve the public trust.

Objective and Scope of the Doctrine of Public Trust

The Doctrine of Public trust serves the following purposes:-

  • Orders affirmative State action for effective management of resources
  • Gives the authority to the public to raise their voice against ineffective management of natural resources.
  • Acts as a leverage during policy deliberations and public scoping sessions and hearings
  • Used by the courts as a tool for protection of the environment from any sort of degradation

Prof. JL Sax and the Doctrine of Public Trust 

Prof Joseph L Sax who was a professor of law at the University of Michigan is considered to be the greatest pioneers of this Doctrine. According to the article written by him which is titled “The Public trust Doctrine in Natural Resource Law: Effective Judicial Intervention”, it is mentioned that this doctrine is known to impose three specific types of restrictions on the government which are:-

1. The property subject to the trust must not only be used for a public purpose, but it must be held available for use by the general public
2. The property may not be sold even for fair cash equivalent
3. The property must be maintained for particular types of use (i) either traditional uses or (ii) some uses particular to that form of resources

Application of the Doctrine of Public Trust in India

  • The Doctrine of Public Trust is not yet fully developed but is still evolving from time to time.
  • The Supreme Court of India has held that this doctrine is to be made a part of Article 21 of the Constitution of India since the doctrine of public trust promotes a pollution-free environment which is again a part of right to life.
  • Article 39(b) sets out that the State shall in particular direct its policy towards securing that the ownership and control of the material resources of the community are so distributed as best to sub-serve the common good.
  • In addition to this, Article 47 of the Constitution of India states that “The State shall endeavor to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forests and wildlife of the country.”

Therefore, the Indian Constitution has not given direct control of the ownership of natural resources to the State, rather it has positioned the State as a trustee who is responsible for the protection and improvement of these resources for the public at large.

Landmark Judgments on Doctrine of Public Trust

1. MC Mehta v. Kamal Nath

The Government of Himachal Pradesh granted lease of riparian forestland to a private company for commercial purpose. The purpose of the lease was to build a motel at the banks of River Beas. A report titled “Kamal Nath dares the mighty Beas to keep his dreams afloat” published in a national newspaper alleged that the motel management interfered with the natural flow of the river in order to divert its course and to save the motel from future floods. The Supreme Court initiated suo moto action based on the newspaper article.

The Supreme Court stated that the Doctrine of Public trust predominantly rests on the principle that certain resources like air, water, forests and seas have such great importance to the public as a whole that it would be unjustified to make them a subject of private ownership. The Court observed that “as rivers, forests, minerals and such other resources constitute a nation’s natural wealth. These resources are not to be frittered away and exhausted by any one generation.

Every generation owes a duty to all succeeding generations to develop and conserve the natural resources of the nation in the best possible way. It is in the interest of mankind. It is in the interest of the nation. Thus, the Doctrine of Public Trust is a part of the law of the land.”

2. MI Builders v. Radhey Shyam Sahu

The Lucknow Municipal Corporation granted permission to a private builder to construct an underground shopping complex which was against the Municipal Act and Master Plan of Lucknow city.

The Supreme Court positioned that the Municipal Corporation as a trustee for the appropriate management of the park must be much more cautious in handling its properties. The court also added that land of immense value had been handed over to it to construct an underground shopping complex in violation of the doctrine. The maintenance of the park because of its historical importance and environmental necessity was in itself a public purpose. In addition, the Municipal Corporation had violated the Doctrine and the Court ordered the demolition of the unauthorized shopping complex.

3. Shailesh R Shah v. State of Gujarat

The Gujarat High court in this case positioned the responsibility of the State in a positive light. It held that the State has control over all the natural resources like lakes, ponds, natural gas, wetlands and since the State is positioned as a trustee, hence it is the State’s responsibility for maintenance and protection of those lands which are for public use. As per the court, “this is a positive duty of the State to prevent the resources and the environment from degradation and safeguard them from extinction”.

4. Mrs. Susetha v. State of Tamil Nadu & Ors

This dispute involves a temple tank in a village near Thoraipakkam on OMR. The said tank was lying in disuse and was abandoned. The Panchayat took a decision of constructing a shopping complex for the purpose of resettlement of those persons who were displaced due to expansion of the highway. The State of Tamil Nadu also issued a Government Order permitting constructions of a shopping complex therein.
This is an articulation of Public trust doctrine from the angle of the affirmative duties of the State with regard to public trust.

Formulated from a negatory angle, the doctrine does not exactly prohibit the alienation of the property held as a public trust. The development of the doctrine of sustainable development is a welcome feature but while emphasizing the need of ecological impact, a delicate balance between it and the necessity for development must be struck. Whereas it is not possible to ignore the inter-generational interest, it is also not possible to ignore the dire need which the society urgently requires.

5. KM Chinnappa v. Union of India

This was a petition challenging the renewal of mining lease granted to Kudremukh Iron Ore Company in the Kudremukh National Park. The Supreme Court held that “the pristine glory of the natural resources cannot be allowed to be eroded or encroached unless the Courts find it necessary in good faith for public good”.


The Doctrine of Public Trust is a highly useful tool in the hands of judiciary to protect and preserve the environment from the arbitrary and unreasonable actions of the governmental authorities. Nowadays, the influence of corporate bodies is increasing globally, there are high chances of misuse of the natural resources or grant of these resources in favor of private players by the governments. In such cases, the doctrine would work as an effective check of the exercise of power by government with regard to dealings and management of natural resources.


1. MC Mehta v. Kamal Nath, (1997) 1 SCC 388
2. MI Builders v. Radhey Shyam Sahu, AIR 1999 SC 2468
3. Shailesh R Shah v. State of Gujarat, (2002) 43 (3) GLR 2295
4. Mrs Susetha v. State of Tamil Nadu & Ors., AIR 2006 SC 2893
5. KM Chinnappa v. Union of India, AIR 1987 SC 965

Author: Haritha Malepati,
3rd year BBA LLB, Symbiosis Law School, Hyderabad

1 thought on “Doctrine of Public Trust and its Application in India”

Leave a Comment