M.C. Mehta Vs. Kamal Nath – Kamal Nath Case – Case Summary

Equivalent Citations: (1997)1 SCC 388
Petitioner: M.C. Mehta
Respondent: Kamal Nath & Ors.
Bench: Kuldip Singh, S. Saghnar Ahmad
Date of judgment: 13/12/1996

Background and Facts of the Case 

The Indian Express published an article reporting that a private company, Span Motels Private Ltd. (‘the Motel Company’), owner of Span Resorts, had floated an ambitious project called Span Club. Kamal Nath who was the Minister of Environment and Forests had direct links with this company. The company encroached upon 27.12 big has of land which also included forest land. The land was regularized and subsequently leased out to the company on 11th April 1994.

This encroachment had an impact on the course of river Beas. For more than 5 months the Span Resorts management moved bulldozers and earth movers to turn the course of the river for the second time. In September, 1993, these activities by the company caused floods in the river and a property worth Rs. 105 Crores was destroyed.

Issues Raised

  1. Whether the court has wrongly inducted Mr. Kama Nath as a Respondent in the present petition?
  2. Whether the construction activity carried out by the Motel Company justified?

Argument of the Respondents

  1. Regarding the first issue the respondent never disputed the fact that Mr. Kamal Nath’s family holds almost all the shares of the Motel Company.
  2. With respect to the second issue, the respondents contended that the construction activity was carried out by the Motel Company on a land under its possession with a view to protect the lease-hold property.
  3. Further, the Divisional Forest Officer permitted the motel to carry out such construction activities subject to the condition that the department would not be liable to pay any amount incurred by the Motel Company for the said construction.

Proceedings before the final judgment –

The Supreme Court took notice of a news report published in the Indian Express dated 25th February, 1996. The news reports stated that Mr. Kamal Nath, Minister of Environment and Forests, had direct links with Span Motels Pvt. Ltd., which owns the Span Resorts. The company had floated an ambitious venture called the Span Club. The club represented Kamal Nath’s dream of having a house on the bank of the Beas. The report stated how the forested land was encroached, and later regularized. The regularization was done when Mr. Kamal Nath was the Minister of Environment and Forests.

Mr. Kamal Nath filed a counter affidavit stating that he has been wrongly arrayed as a respondent in this petition. The Court held that it was never disputed by Mr. Harish Salve, learned counsel appearing for Mr. Kamal Nath that almost all the shares in the Motel are owned by the family of Mr. Kamal Nath. Mr. Kamal Nath’s family, the management of the company took over the Motel in the year 1981 and a fresh lease was signed on 29th September, 1981.

Mr. B.L. Mathur, on behalf of Span Motels Private Limited (‘the Motel Company’) filed an additional counter affidavit. The affidavit stated that the land was granted on a lease to Motel for a period of 99 years. Along with the additional affidavit the correspondence between the Motel and the Government was also annexed.

The court noted that Mr. Kamal Nath was the Minister in charge, Department of Environment and Forests at the time clearance was given and lease was granted. The motel was writing to the Government for the lease of additional forest land since 1988. It was only in November, 1933, when Mr. Kamal Nath was the Minister in charge that the lease was granted.

After carefully examining all the counter affidavits filed by therespondent parties the court established the following facts – 

  1. The lease hold area in possession of the motel is a part of the protected forest land owned by the State Government.
  2. The forest land measuring 26 bighas leased to the motel by the lease-deed dated April 11, 1994 is situated on the right back of the river.
  3. A wooden bridge on the spill channel connects the main motel land and the land acquired under the 1994 lease-deed.
  4. 22.2 Bighas out of the land leased to the motel in 1994 was encroached upon by the motel.
  5. The river was flooded in 1995 after which the motel has dredged the left side channel (the main channel) of the river to increase its capacity. This was done with a view to curtail the entry of water into the right side of the channel.
  6. The Motel Company had constructed 190meter wire crates on the bank of the river. The dredged material is piled up on the banks of the river. The dredging and channelizing of the left bank was done on a large scale with a view to keep high intensity of flow away from the motel.
  7. The dredging of the main channel of river was done by blasting the big boulders and removing the debris.
  8. The mouth of the natural channel has been blocked by wire crates and dumping of boulders.
  9. The construction work was not done under expert advice.
  10. The construction work undertaken by the motel for channelizing the main course has divided the main stream into two which can again change its course.

The Respondents contended that the construction activity was done by the Motel on the land under its possession to protect the lease-hold land from floods and the Divisional Forest Officer permitted the motel to carry out such construction activities subject to the condition that the department would not be liable to pay any amount incurred by the Motel Company for the said construction.

The Supreme Court rejected this contention and held that the forest lands which have been given on lease to the Motel by the State Governments are situated at the bank of the river Beas. The Beas is a young and dynamic river and it changes its course very often. The right bank of the river is where the Motel is located comes under forest. The area is ecologically fragile and therefore it should not be converted into private ownership.

Doctrine of Public Trust

The Supreme Court applied the ‘Doctrine of Public Trust’ to the present case. Doctrine of Pubic trust is an ancient legal doctrine which states that certain common properties such as rivers, seashore, forests and the air were held by Government in trusteeship for the free and unimpeded use of the general public.Under the Roman law these resources were either owned by no one (res Nullius) or by everyone in common (Res Communious). Under the English common law, however, the Sovereign could own these resources but the ownership was limited in nature, the Crown could not grant these properties to private owners if the effect was to interfere with the public interests in navigation or fishing.

Public Trust Doctrine primarily rests on the principle that certain resources like air, sea, water and the forests have such a great importance to the people as a whole that it would be unjustified to make them a subject of private ownership. The said resources being a gift of nature should be made freely available to everyone irrespective of the status in life.

The public trust doctrine under the English Common Law extended only to certain traditional uses such as navigation, commerce and fishing.However, the American Courts have expanded the concept of the public trust doctrine[1]. The observations of the Supreme Court of California in Mono Lake case clearly show the judicial concern in protecting all ecological resources for example fresh water, wetlands or riparian forests.

Application of the Doctrine of Public Trust

The Court held that issues in the present case point out towards a classic struggle between those members of the public who would preserve our ecological resources and those charged with administrative responsibilities who, under the pressures of the changing needs of an increasing complex society, find it necessary to encroach to some extent open lands heretofore considered in-violate to change. However, no law made by any central of state legislature exists to resolve this conflict. In the absence of such a law the executive must not fail to protect the ecological resources and convert them into private ownership.

In the present case there is a large river basin which is a part of a protected forest land. This land was leased by the Government of Himachal Pradesh to the Motel Company for a commercial purpose. The Himachal Pradesh Government was held to have committed a patent breach of Public Trust by leasing an ecologically fragile land to the Motel management.

Final Judgment

  1. The public trust doctrine, as discussed by us in this judgment is a part of the law of the land.
  2. The Court quashed the lease-deed by which forested land was leased to the Motel Company and held that the construction activity carried out by the Motel Company was not justified.
  3. The Motel was ordered to pay compensation by way of cost for the restitution of the environment and ecology of the area.
  4. The Motel was ordered to construct a boundary wall at a distance of not more than 4 meters for the building of the motel beyond which they were not allowed to use the land of the river basin.
  5. The Court restricted the Motel from discharging untreated effluent into the river. Himachal Pradesh Pollution Control Board was directed to inspect and keep a check.

Case Comment

The Supreme Court held the Doctrine of Public Trust to be a part of the law of the land. The application of this doctrine to the Indian Law was further confirmed in the case of Maharaj Singh v Indian Oil Corporation[2] and further reiterated in the case of M. I. Builders v. Radhey Shyam Sahu[3]. This doctrine provides the means for increasing the effectiveness of Environmental Impact Assessment Laws and makes it a duty of the state to protect the ecological resources of the country.


[1]National Audubon Society v. Superior Court, 33 Cal. 3d 419 (Cal. 1983).

[2]Maharaj Singh v Indian Oil Corporation [1999] A.I.R. 81.

[3]M. I. Builders v. Radhey Shyam Sahu [1999] A.I.R.  SC 2468.

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