Public Trust Doctrine In Environmental Law


Public Trust Doctrine (PTD) is a doctrine that governs the management of natural resources and the environment. It is an ancient doctrine having its root in Roman law. It acts as a public property doctrine by limiting the government’s actions over public property. According to this doctrine, the public is treated as the beneficiaries while the government is their trustee.

According to this doctrine, the government’s trustees should hold and manage the public property, which includes the natural resources and the environment, in a way that the public, both present and future generations, are benefited from it. For a natural resource to be available to the future generation, the government should carefully manage its resources. Smart allocation of natural resources and sustainable development is a must so that future generations are not deprived of their right to exploit natural resources.

What is Public Trust Doctrine?

Public Trust Doctrine is a principle which states that specific resources should be held in trust by the state and taken care of for the common good of the public. The doctrine makes the government /the state a trustee of the public who should take care of the natural resources – like navigable water, the land beneath the water, forests, seashore and air- and preserve it for public use. According to this doctrine, the state is under the obligation to protect, preserve and prevent the natural resources and environment from overexploitation.

Definitions of Public Trust Doctrine

Before getting deeper into the topic, let’s look at some important definitions:


The Public Trust Doctrine consists of the term ‘Trust’. Every trust has two main members in it: the trustee; and the beneficiary. Who is the trustee according to this doctrine? A trustee is a person who holds the property on behalf of the beneficiary for the sole benefit of the beneficiary. The trustee under this doctrine is the government/state. In cases where the property is owned by a private entity or person, the private person who owns that property becomes the trustee. Thus, it is the government/the private owner, who is a trustee. These trustees should make sure that all the public properties are appropriately managed. Their actions should not cause depletion and extinction of the environment and natural resources.


Once there exists a trust, there should be a beneficiary for it. The beneficiaries are the people for whose benefit the trust exists. The trustee’s primary duty is to make sure that the trust is managed to the beneficiaries’ complete benefit.

Under this doctrine, the beneficiaries are the citizens of present and future generations. Thus the government should hold the public property for the benefit of the present generations and future generations.

The Assets of the Trust

There is a trust and a beneficiary of the trust. But, what is the trustee holding on behalf of the beneficiary? There should be a property which the trustee holds on behalf of the beneficiary. According to the Public Trust Doctrine, the assets held by the trustee for the benefit of the beneficiaries are public property.

It is essential to learn what a public property is. Every natural resource like water, lake, air, the forest is part of public property. Public property is vested with jus publicum and jus privatum. Jus publicum means the public’s right to enjoy and use public water and land for commercial use, fishing, bathing, navigation, and much more. Jus privatum means the private owners’ right to use and keep in possession of the public property. Public property is a property that either belongs to all (citizens) or does not belong to any.

Importance of Public Trust Doctrine

The natural resources are there for human exploitation. However, many questions need to be answered concerning these natural resources. To what extent can these resources be utilised? Is there any limitation to the consumption of these resources? Who is the person in charge of managing the checks and balances of these usages? Is there an owner for these resources?

The doctrine of Public Trust gives answers to all of these questions. Every individual has the right to use and benefit from natural resources. Clean water, clean air, and rich soil are some things that no living being can be deprived of as everyone is entitled to it. If one person’s overuse is depriving the other person of his right to enjoy such resources, then a problem arises. To avoid such a situation, someone has to take charge of protecting these resources. It is here where the government/the state plays an important role.

According to the Public Trust Doctrine, the state is a trustee to the public who should own/and preserve these resources so that the present and future generations can benefit from it.

Public Trust Doctrine in India

“We don’t inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.”

The Public Trust Doctrine is new to India. The doctrine has been accepted under the common law through various landmark cases. Article 21 can be considered as a root of the Public Trust Doctrine. The right to life is a fundamental right guaranteed under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. Right to life doesn’t only mean the right to live, but consists of, and is not limited to, the right to live with dignity, right to livelihood, right to a healthy environment, Pollution free air, clean water, etc. Every individual should get access to a clean and healthy environment. It is essential to protect and improve the natural environment to lead a healthy life.

Article 48A and 51A of the Constitution especially deal with the protection of the environment. Article 48A makes it mandatory for the state to improve and protect the environment and makes it mandatory for the state to preserve the forest and the country’s wildlife. Article 51A deals with the fundamental duties of the citizens. Subsection (g) of Article 51A makes it a duty of the citizens to protect and improve the natural environment.

The Public Trust Doctrine has two purposes:

  1. It makes it mandatory for the state to take effective control and management of the natural resources; and
  2. It gives power to the citizens to raise questions against the ineffective management of natural resources.

Thus, any act against nature or is in favour of environmental degradation should be strictly prohibited/controlled. The Public Trust Doctrine in India gives this responsibility of protecting the environment to the State/government. The doctrine mandates the state to protect and improve public property (natural resources) and regulate the activities of private parties who own such public property.

Every natural resource should be utilised sustainably. Overexploitation of the resources will deprive the rights of the future generation to utilise such natural resources. It should be kept in mind that we have just borrowed the earth, which consists of the environment, from our children, and it is the duty of each individual to return it back to their children in a better condition and not in the worst condition.

Landmark Cases enlightening the Public Trust Doctrine

There are many landmark cases that have been the root for establishing the Public Trust Doctrine in India. Few of the cases are mentioned below:

M.C Mehta v. Kamalnath[1]

M.C. Mehta v. Kamal Nath is the first landmark case in which the doctrine of public trust was brought into India. The supreme court made this landmark judgment regarding environmental protection by mentioning the Doctrine of Public Trust.

In this case, specific forest land which was situated at the River Beas was given for lease to the Motel by the state government. In order for the Motel to be safe from the future flood from the river, the Motel attempted to change the river’s natural flow. When the supreme court came to know through a newspaper publication that the Motel is planning to change the natural course of the water, the supreme court interfered to stop the actions of the Motel.

The supreme court, in this case, introduced the Public Trust Doctrine and stated that certain natural resources like water, air, sea and forest are very important for living which cannot be owned by anyone in person. The honourable court held that certain natural resources are public property and not private property and are to be managed in trust by the state for the benefit of the public at large.

The court put a great responsibility for the state by making it a duty of the state to protect the natural resources. It further observed that it is the duty of each generation to protect and preserve the natural resources for the future generation. It also stressed that wherever there is no law relating to the protection of natural resources, the doctrine of the public can be used to make decisions.

Stating all the importance of protecting the environment and the natural resources, the Supreme Court applied the polluter pays principle and directed the Motel to pay compensation for the destruction it has done in such an ecologically fragile land.

M.I. Builders Pvt. Ltd. v. Radhey Shyam Sahu[2]

In M.I. Builders Pvt. Ltd. v. Radhey Shyam Sahu case, the Supreme Court took a precautionary action against M.I.Builders. In this case, the Lucknow City Corporation gave permission and made an agreement with the M.I.Builders to construct an underground shopping mall in a park situated in Lucknow. The High Court set aside the agreement made between the parties and gave an order directing Mahapalika to bring back the park to its original form within three months.

The court observed the following: The clauses in the agreement state that the construction is done to reduce the congestion in the area, however construction of a shopping mall in that area will make the place more congested rather than reducing it. The action of the corporation and M.I. builders are in contrary to the agreement and public policy. The park is of huge importance, and historical value to that place and any action taken to destroy it will be considered as an act against the public interest. Constructing a shopping mall is against the right granted under the Constitution and deprives a quality of life for the residents of that area.

Shailesh R. Shah v. State of Gujarat[3]

In Shailesh R. Shah v. State of Gujarat case, the high court of Gujarat stressed the state’s duty. It pointed out that it is the duty of the state to protect the lake, natural gases, pond, wetlands and every other resource and prevent it from extinction and degradation.


Protecting the environment and its natural resources is the need of the hour. Everyone should keep in mind that we have borrowed this earth from our children and not from our parents. Thus, it is the duty of each individual to protect, preserve and improve the environment and its resources for the benefit of the future generation. No one is the owner of natural resources. Natural resources such as water, air, forest, and sea are very important and cannot be owned by anyone. Every resource either belongs to everyone or no one.

The Public Trust Doctrine plays a vital role in protecting the environment and the natural resources from over-exploitation. The doctrine puts responsibility for the state to act as a trustee of the public and preserve the natural resources and environment for the betterment of living beings. Though this doctrine is new to India, it has set an important stepping stone for the protection of the environment.

[1] [1997], 1 S.C.C. 388

[2] [1999], S.C.C. 464

[3] 2002 SCC OnLine Guj 164 : (2002) 43 (3) GLR 2295

This article has been written by Velvizhi V, LLB(Hons) graduate from School Of Excellence in Law.

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