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Understanding the Doctrine of Public Trust

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The said post aims to analyse the doctrine of public trust and its salient features in the context of present day. Public Trust Properties cannot be transferred to a private party, and in case if such property is given to private use then it interferes with the right of the Public.

Introduction to the Concept 

The origin of the Public Trust Doctrine lies in Roman law. The Ancient Roman laws of Emperor Justinian gave the idea of public trust wherein he held that seashores are not for private use and need to be open for the general public. It was believed by the Roman Jurist that there are certain basic things in nature, like water, air which are common to all living creatures, such basic things should not be under anyone’s control and should be free for use. Taking into consideration the Magna Carta in England, where the public rights were emerging and further it strengthened the insistence of the nobles that fishing weirs which obstructed free navigation be removed from the river. Thereafter, in the case of Illinois Central Railroad v. Illinois, it became part of the common law of the US. This was the landmark judgment wherein the Court held the public trust doctrine prevents the government from alienating the public right to the land under navigable waters.

So, the basic meaning of the Public Trust Doctrine is that certain resources are a gift from nature and are freely available to everyone irrespective of their living standard. The doctrines enjoin the sovereign to protect such resources for public use. The Doctrines refuse the private use of such resources or for commercial use. The doctrine is widely accepted and applied. The public trust doctrine makes it possible for the state as well as for the judiciary to protect the rights of the people, in accessing natural resources. It also protects and prevents the exclusive use of private parties.

Application of Doctrine in India 

In India, the application of the Public Trust Doctrine is seen in several judgments of the Supreme Court.

Fundamental Environment RightThe main purpose of having the Public Trust Doctrine is to preserve the environment and natural resources and provide them to the public at large. The doctrine of Public Trust is similar to Fundamental Environment Rights. The constitution of the country provides the provisions relating to environmental protection in the chapter of Directive Principles and the Fundamental Duties of protecting the environment. Also taking it to the wide interpretation of Article 21 which ensures the right to life and liberty, the state must protect the environment so people can live safely.

The Apex Court of the land, in the case of Virender Gaur v. the State of Haryana, had accepted the fact that environmental protection is part of the right to life as under Article 21. The Court said that “the right to live with dignity including the right to live comes within the ambit of preservation of the environment, ecological balance free from pollution, sanitation without which humans cannot live.” The Doctrine of Public Trust has gained its position in the constitution, as it covers the ambit of the right to life. In the case of M.I Builders (P) Ltd v. Radhey Shyam Sahu, the Supreme Court directed the builder who destroyed the park, for making a shopping complex to restore it as a park which was protected under PTD derived from the right to life under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.  In the case of MI Builder, the Court said the doctrine has grown from Article 21 of the constitution.

Landmark Judgments – The Apex Court of the land has concluded this doctrine from various sources of English law and Article 21 of the Constitution, which ensures the right to life and Article 39 which provides the equitable distribution of material resources. The doctrine was first called upon in the case of M.C Mehta v. Kamal Nath, wherein the PIL was filed by the petitioner challenging the proposal of changing river Beas by dredging, blasting, and reconstructing the riverbed by the tourist resort, named Span Motels. Unfortunately, the Ministry of Environment and Forests approved the redirection of such a course. However, the Apex Court of the land gave its ruling in the favour of the petitioner saying that the reconstruction course violates the public trust doctrine and thus is not justified. The Supreme Court in its various judgments held that natural resources are the basic and common properties held by the state as their trustees on the behalf of people.

The recent decision of Gujarat High Court on the doctrine of Public Trust stated that “the State acts as trustee of all the natural resources and it has the legal responsibility to protect such resources. And also, it added that while protecting people’s common heritage of lakes, ponds, reservoirs and streams, it needs to also preserve them quantitatively and qualitatively.”

Drawbacks of Public Trust Doctrine

One of the important drawbacks of PTD is that there is no specific written law for governing or for executing the doctrine.

Having said that like there is no special law for PTD, there is a need to take action by legislation by giving statutory law just like the Water Prevention and Control of Pollution Act 1974 and Environmental Protection Act.

There are different points of view taken by the different High Courts and Supreme Court, so it becomes slightly difficult to follow specific judgment. One of the major problems in India is the limitation of resources which affects the implementation of Court judgments. For example, in the case of S. Jagannath v. Union of India and others, after the judgment was passed by the Court, the parliament passed an overruling law. The implementation of doctrine thereby is difficult.


The Doctrine of Public Trust is a very useful tool in preserving and protecting the environment. Natural resources are part of the living being and by having the doctrine of public trust; the public can access such natural resources without having the fear of anyone’s ownership over them.

Having a good environment comes under the ambit of the fundamental right to life. There is a need for legislation to take serious actions for implementing the doctrine, as having no written law the implementation is weak and the importance for the doctrine might decrease. is now on Telegram. Follow us for regular legal updates and judgments from the Court. Follow us on Google NewsInstagramLinkedInFacebook & Twitter. You can also subscribe to our Weekly Email Updates. You can also contribute stories like this and help us spread awareness for a better society. Submit Your Post Now.

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