Public Trust Doctrine

Author: Anshu Bansal, Research Associate

In the Common Law jurisprudence, a trust is “the legal relationship between one person having an equitable ownership in property and another person owning the legal title to such property” ((John Simpson , The Oxford English Dictionary (February 1, 1884).)). In the context of the public trust doctrine, the legal title is vested in the state and the equitable title in the public. Thus the state is responsible as trustee to manage the property in the interest of the public ((Lucas Bento , Searching for Intergenerational Green Solutions: The Relevance of the Public Trust Doctrine to Environmental Preservation, Common Law Review 7-13 (November 14, 2009).)). Ancient roman emperor develops the doctrine. It is based on the principle that certain resources like water, air and forests are so much inimitable in the sense that it cannot be owned by any private being. It would be in the greater public interest to devoid private individual’s right over these resources as these resources are considered as gift of God which is given by god to the whole of the inhabitants of earth. It is required that someone should manage these resources otherwise everyone will claim over these resources and hence, emerged the Public trust doctrine. State is entitled to prevent the private ownership or commercial use over these resources and to use it for general public.

The evolution of the public trust doctrine has been remarkable ((The modern public trust doctrine is surely traceable to Professor Sax’s influential article published some thirty years ago. Joseph Sax, The Public Trust in Natural Resources Law: Effective Judicial Intervention, 68 Mich. L. Rev. 471 (1970); see also Carol M. Rose, Joseph Sax and the Idea of the Public Trust, 19 Ecology L.Q. 351 (1989).))but it has been haphazard. Some countries have rich histories of public trust doctrine while some do not. Some have entrenched the public trust constitutionally while some have invoked the doctrine in their statutes. But there has not been an enormous amount of learning from one jurisdiction to another ((Michael C. Blumm, The Public Trust Doctrine—A Twenty-First Century Concept.)). The doctrine was first enunciated in its modern form by US Supreme Court in Illinois Central Railroad Company v. People of State of Illinois (([1892] 146 US 537.)). At that period in time, the public trust was used to protect, and prohibit interference with, three uses of the trust property, namely for the purposes of commerce, navigation, and fishing ((Neptune City v. Avon-by-the-Sea, 61 N.J. 296, 304, 294 A.2d 47, 52 (1972).)). However, contemporary societal concerns with environmental protection and resource conservation extend beyond navigable waters to include far ranging elements of ecosystem ((Supra at note 2)).

We can also relate public trust doctrine with the principle of intergenerational equity and sustainable development. As the Stockholm Declaration of United Nations on Human Environment evidences that “The natural resources of the earth, including the air, water, land, flora and fauna and especially representative samples of natural system, must be safeguarded for the benefit of present and future generations through careful planning or management, as appropriate….”. Hence, public trust doctrine is widely accepted doctrine in international scenario.

Public trust doctrine and India

Over a period of time, this doctrine became the fundamental tool used by courts to justify the action of state authorities in many legal systems. In India, this doctrine is recognised by judiciary in many cases and it is a well established phenomenon in Indian jurisprudence. Under the Constitution of India, Right to life is considered as fundamental right under article 21. It is interpreted by Supreme Court in Olga Tellis ((1985 (2) Supp SCR 51))Case that right to life include right to livelihood and an extended interpretation also included right to healthy environment.

For the first time, the doctrine was mentioned in the case of M.C.Mehta v.  Kamalnath and others (([1997]1 SCC 388)). It was pronounced that Our legal system which is based on English Common Law includes the public trust doctrine as part of its jurisprudence. The State is the trustee of all natural resources which are by nature meant for public use and enjoyment. The State as a trustee is under a legal duty to protect the natural resources. These resources meant for public use cannot be converted into private ownership.” Court went on to clear that even if any specific or separate law is present on the issue, public trust doctrine won’t lose its application.  If there is no suitable legislation to preserve the natural resources, the public authorities should take advantage of this doctrine in addition to the fact that there was a branch of municipal law ((Id.)).

After M.C.Mehta case, in Majra singh case ((Majra Singh And Ors. vs Indian Oil Corporation And Ors. , AIR 1999 J K 81)), it was established that public trust doctrine is the part and parcel of Indian legal system. Later on in M.I. Builders v Radhey Shyam Sahu case ((AIR 1999 SC 2468))it was asserted that the public authorities should act as trustees of natural resources. These three cases form the backbone of development of public trust doctrine in India. Hence, the sum total of these cases evidenced that the state is not the owner of the natural resources in the country but a trustee who holds fiduciary relationship with the people.

In the recent case, court while reaffirming the doctrine observed that the action on the part of the State Government is valid as per doctrine of public trust and it is a precautionary principle under which the State should always anticipate environmental harm and take measures to avoid and prevent illegal mining, storage and transportation of sand in the State ((Unknown v. The State Of Tamil Nadu on 19 June, 2012, Mad. HC.)). The State being a welfare state is under a constitutional obligation to regulate such things ((Id)). In the case of Rajendra Kumar Razdan v. Mr. T. Srinivasan & Ors ((D.B.Civil Writ Petition No.4271/1999 delivered on 27 September)), it was also observed that courts in other jurisdiction are expanding the ambit of public trust. The landmark case (Mono Lake case) of  Supreme Court of California  clearly show the judicial concern in protecting all ecologically important lands, for example fresh water, wetlands or riparian forests. In Phillips Petroleum co. v. Mississippi ((108 S.C.C. 791)), the United States Supreme Court upheld Mississippi’s extension of public trust doctrine to lands underlying no navigable tidal areas. The majority judgment adopted ecological concepts to determine which land can be considered tide lands. Madras HC directed to take appropriate action against the officers of the Government who permitted the illegal removal of the sand and causing damage to the river ((Public Trust Doctrine available at:

Recently, Kerala State Government has framed legislation for protecting the fragile forest land following the said principle of public trust doctrine. Kerala Forest (Vesting and Management of Ecologically Fragile Lands) Act, 2002 was framed following the above principles ((Perumatty Grama Panchayat v. State of Kerala W.P.(C) No. 34292 of 2003 ; Public Trust Doctrine available at Again, most freshly, on 23rd April, 2013, it was observed that illegal commercial activities in the football ground made by the respondent are wholly impermissible and unauthorised and against the concept of the Public Trust Doctrine and once again court affirmed the principle of public trust doctrine ((Of 2010 With C.A.N 7661 Of 2011 … vs Bidhannagar Municipality)). Hence, it can be concluded that court is considering the doctrine on a very serious count.


It is beyond doubt that Public trust doctrine has gained its legal status in different jurisprudence. However, It is important to add here that the general stand of the court is that it did not confer any property right on the public under the trust. While applying the public trust doctrine, the Court in almost all the cases, took account of either the polluter pays principle or the precautionary principle or both. Hence, the application of public trust doctrine is in tandom with the application of other major environmental law principles.

As, it is a doctrine which is developed by judicial-legislation, active role of legislature is also required so that Public Trust Doctrine find its place in the statute. This will further the cause for which this doctrine is developed. Recent chain of cases makes it crystal clear that court is not reluctant to use this doctrine for the protection of state authorities.

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