August 3, 2021

Case Brief: M.C. Mehta vs. Kamal Nath and others

Citation: (1997)1 SCC 388

Coram: Hon’ble Mr. Justice Kuldip Singh Hon’ble Mr. Justice S. Saghir Ahmad

Relevant Laws: The constitution of India, The Environment Protection Act 1986

Brief Facts of M.C. Mehta vs. Kamal Nath and others

1. Span Motels Pvt. Ltd. was a private company held by the owner of Span Resorts, had floated an ambitious project called Span Club.

2. Mr. Kamal Nath (the then Minister of Environment and Forests) had a direct contact with the owner of Span Motels. He leased out 27.12 bighas of land to the Company for their project.

3. Due to this permission given, led to the encroachment of Beas river and due to the pressure from construction work of the project, the river changed its course which led to washing away of the adjoining lawns.

4. The Owners used bulldozers and earthmovers which led to a change of course of the Beas river. This was done to protect the motel from floods due to the river in future.

Issues in M.C. Mehta vs. Kamal Nath and others

1. Was the construction undertaken by the Company legal and justified?

2. Is the court correct in making Mr. Kamal Nath a respondent in the current case?

Holding (Applied rule of law)

The public trust doctrine, as discussed by the Court in this judgment was a part of the law of the land.


The construction work of the Motel caused a lot of pollution and even diverted the course of the river as stated in the facts. Pollution is a civil wrong and it is like a tort committed against the entire community. The lease deed granted to the Motel Company by the Government, lead to the Company encroaching of 27.12 bighas of forest land. A PIL was filed by Mr. M.C. Mehta against Mr. Kamal Nath (the then Minister of Forest and Environment) and Ors. The court through the facts disclosed during the court hearing and sumbissions, said that it would be true, that the said construction would be a serious act of environmental degradation.

After this, the Public Trust Doctrine was applied in this case. This theory was first developed by the ancient Roman Empire. Under the Roman Law these resources were either owned by no one (res Nullious) or by every one in common (Res Communious).

The Supreme Court in this case mentioned that: The Public Trust Doctrine primarily rests on the principle that certain resources like air sea, waters and the forests have such a great importance to the people as a whole that it would be wholly onjustilled to make them a subject of private ownership. The said resources being a gift of nature, they should be made freely available to everyone irrespective of the status in life. The doctrine enjoins upon the Government to protect the resources for the enjoyment of the general public rather than to permit their use for private ownership or commercial purposes.

The Court held that: “Coming to the facts of the present case, large area of the bank of river Beas which is part of protected forest has been given on a lease purely for commercial purposes to the Motels. We have no hesitation in holding that the Himachal Pradesh Government committed patent breach of public trust by leasing the ecologically fragile land to the Motel management. Both the lease – transactions are in patent breach of the trust held by the State Government. The second lease granted in the year 1994 was virtually of the land which is a part of river-bed. Even the board in its report has recommended deleasing of the said area.”

Natural resources should be freely available to people irrespective of their status or standard of living as it is a gift of nature and it is for the benefit of public at large. In this case, the Government is the trustee in whose hand the protection of river beas is given, the public is the beneficiary. Hence, it is the duty of Government to protect the Beas river.

Similar cases where public trust doctrine was applied:

a. M.I. Builders vs. Radhey Shyam Sahu (AIR 1999 SC 2468)

b. Mrs. Susetha vs. State of Tamil Nadu and Ors (AIR 2006 SC 2893)

Judgment: M.C. Mehta vs. Kamal Nath and others

1.The Public Trust Doctrine is a part of the Laws of the Land. 1

2. The lease deed in favour of the Motel was quashed.

3. Cost of Restitution was charged to the Motel Company for the loss caused to the environment and the natural resources.

4. The Motel shall construct a boundary wall at a distance of not more than 4 meters from the cluster of rooms (main building of the Motel) towards the river basin. The boundary wall shall be on the area of the Motel which is covered by the lease dated September 29, 1981. The Motel shall not encroach/cover/utilize any part of the river basin. The boundary wall shall separate the Motel building from the river basin. The riverbank and the river basin shall be left open for the public use.

5. Untreated effluent shouldn’t be discharged in the river.

6. Span Motels was additionally required to show why they shouldn’t pay pollution fine, compliant with the polluter pays principle.


The Public Trust Doctrine is an important tool to protect our environment from any kind of arbitrary decision taken by the Government officials. In this age, it is very important to have such kind of doctrine to protect the environment and to ensure sustainable development.

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Author Details: Jaanvi Shah

The views of the author are personal only. (if any)


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