Environmental Law principles and doctrines do not display stagnant growth or mediocre application. They have been evolving since years. Several environmental Law principles like the Polluter Pays Principle, Precautionary Principle, the concept of sustainable development, etc. had gained impetus due to various International Conventions. In India, the concept of Public Trust Doctrine was widely discussed while deciding the case of Span Motels Pvt. Ltd. It is one of the reasons why the case, i.e., M C Mehta v Kamal Nath[i] is famously known as the Span Motels Case.
The case is regarded as one of the most significant judgments in interpreting and applying the Public Trust Doctrine in spirit and substance. Not only did this case highlight the concept of Public Trust Doctrine as well as the Polluter Pays Principle, but also helped exposing the key role played by the Minister of Environment and Forest in granting permissions.
The Public Trust Doctrine
This doctrine revolves around the idea that the Government acts as a trustee for natural resources. According to the Doctrine of Public Trust, the government is bound to protect the resources for the use and enjoyment of the general public instead of allowing them to be used for private ownership or commercial purposes. The Public Trust Doctrine creates an implied legal duty upon the state to protect such natural resources as it acts as a trustee of the said resources. The Public Trust Doctrine is not only important to protect and save the Environment from deterioration, but is the law of the land.
In India, the Public Trust Doctrine finds its genesis in Article 21 of the Constitution of India and the same was affirmed by the Jammu & Kashmir High Court in the case of Th. Majra Singh & Ors v. Indian Oil Corporation & Ors.[ii].
The case of M. I. Builders v. Radhey Shyam Sahu[iii] also revolved around the concept of Public Trust Doctrine. The appeal was against the judgment of a Division Bench of the High Court of Judicature at Allahabad where the learned Judge held that the permission given to the appellants to construct an underground shopping complex was strictly illegal, arbitrary and unconstitutional. The Court observed that maintenance of the park was necessary from an environmental point of view and that the reason for permitting the construction of the underground commercial complex served no purpose and was illusionary. When the appeal reached the Supreme Court of India, the Hon’ble Court also realized that the reasoning underlying granting permission was totally absurd and was only to help the appellants incur profits at the cost of the destruction of the park. The said park was of great historical value and by destroying the said park, the people of Lucknow would be deprived of it. The Hon’ble Court observed that by way of granting permits, the concerned officers of the Mahapalika had sidelined their duty towards the people of Lucknow. The construction of the underground commercial complex would deprive the people of Lucknow of their quality of life which is guaranteed and that the agreement in question was totally arbitrary and opposed to public policy as it was clearly not in the interest of the public.
Polluter Pays Principle
The Polluter Pays Principle has been applied in several cases pertaining to the destruction of the environment. The principle is characterized by a compensatory factor. The wide application of the Polluter Pays Principle in the cases concerned with environment law and especially, the Span Motels case makes it extremely important to delve deeper into the study of this principle. It is pertinent to note that even Principle 16 of Rio Declaration endeavors to promote the polluter pays principle
The Polluter Pays principle is applied after the environmental damage has taken place. As per the Polluter Pays Principle, the polluter who is responsible for causing the environmental damage, degradation or destruction would be held liable for the said environmental destruction and would be bound to contribute towards the growth of the environment. As consequence of causing massive environmental damage, this principle mandates the person who has caused such an adverse environmental deterioration to compensate for their detrimental actions. The polluter not only compensates the victims but also pays for the restoration of the environment. Hence, in cases where the environmental damage cannot be reversed, the polluter can at least be made to pay the cost of the environmental damage done by them. This principle gives scope for the creation of absolute liability on the polluter.
Background of the Span Motels Case [M C Mehta v Kamal Nath & Ors]
One of the most important sources that brought the ‘Span Motels’ issue to light was an Indian Newspaper called Indian Express. The Article titled “Kamal Nath dares the mighty Beas to keep his dreams afloat” disclosed quite a few relevant issues pertaining to the construction of the Span Club. The judgement even mentioned one of the most important paragraphs from the Article. The Article also briefly disclosed the then Minister of Environment and Forests’, Mr. Kamal Nath’s involvement in the creation and inception of the Span Club.
Facts of the Span Motels Case [M C Mehta v Kamal Nath & Ors]
A renowned newspaper called the “Indian Express” had published an article reporting that a private company called Span Motels Pvt. Ltd. (hereinafter referred to as “Span Motels”), which was also the owner of Span Resorts, had floated an ambitious project called Span Club. The then Minister of Environment and Forest, Kamal Nath, had a direct connection with Span Motels. Span Motels had built a motel on the bank of the River Beas. This was leased by the Government of India in 1981. Apart from the main land that was being used for construction of the Motel, Span Motels had also encroached upon an additional area of land adjoining the leasehold area which was also leased out to them. The use of earthmovers and bulldozers had devastating effects on a nearby waterbody called ‘River Beas’. The course of River Beas was disrupted and turned in order to divert its flow and create a new channel. The course of the river was disrupted as a safeguard to help prevent the Motel from any future water calamities like the floods.
How And Why Was Mr. Kamal Nath Involved?
M C Mehta v Kamal Nath & Ors also known as Span Motels Case was a serious case of environmental destruction. It was discovered that Kamal Nath, who was the Minister of Environment and Forest, had played an instrumental role in regularizing forest land encroachment that was being conducted by Span Motels. He particularly had business interests in the said property. It was also revealed that the majority of shares of Span Motel were owned by Kamal Nath’s family. Mr. Kamal Nath had also filed a counter affidavit and certain paragraphs of the same can be seen mentioned at the beginning of the judgement.
Issues involved in the Span Motels Case [M C Mehta v Kamal Nath & Ors]
The Span Motels Case primarily revolved around the following two issues:
- Whether it would be right to include Mr. Kamal as a respondent in the petition?
- Whether the Construction Activity carried out by the private company is justified?
Arguments in Span Motels Case
The petitioner incessantly argued that disturbing the ecological balance and disrupting the natural conditions of certain resources would be viewed as a direct contravention of the fundamental right guaranteed under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. This would further lead to the violation of Article 51 a (g) of the Constitution of India.
The Minister of Environment and Forests denied the allegations and contended that he had wrongly been made a party to the petition. Furthermore, Mr. Kamal Nath also contended that the press reports were mala fide and were published with an intention of maligning his reputation. One of the Respondents contended that the course of the river was not changed with mala fide intention and that measures had been taken to prevent erosion. It was argued that the Divisional Forest Officer gave permission to Span Motels to conduct the necessary work subject to certain conditions. It was also argued that the construction was carried out on the land under Span Motel’s possession and surrounding area for the protection of the said land from floods in the future.
Decision of the Apex Court in Span Motels Case [M C Mehta v Kamal Nath & Ors]
While delivering the judgement, the court mindfully applied the Doctrine of Public Trust. While applying the Public Trust Doctrine, the learned Judge of Supreme Court, elucidated upon this ancient Roman legal theory which mandated for certain general properties or natural resources such as rivers, seashore, forests, and air were to be held by the government in trusteeship for the free and unimpeded use of the general public.
As per Roman law, these resources were either res nullis or held by everybody in common. The Hon’ble court did not hesitate in recognizing that the Doctrine of Public trust, would indeed apply to this case. Elucidating upon the powers of the court, it was rightly observed that in cases where a law has been made by the Parliament or the State legislature, the courts could act as an effective instrument in determining the legislative intent. This is possible due to the power of judicial review as provided under the Constitution of India. The Hon’ble Court observed that the Himachal Pradesh Government was in breach of the Public Trust Doctrine as such ecologically sensitive land could not be leased to any private company for encroaching upon and making profits off it. Therefore, the Supreme Court rightly took cognizance of the fact that the Himachal Pradesh State Government was in breach of public trust by leasing an ecologically fragile land to the Span Motels.
The Hon’ble Court rightly quashed the deed of 27.2 bighas (2.22 ha) of forest land leased to Span Motels by the State Forest Department. Furthermore, a boundary measuring four meters was to be constructed as a boundary wall beyond which they could not use the property attached to the river basin. The Hon’ble court gave directions to National Environment Engineering Research Institute (hereinafter referred to as “NEERI”) to inspect the area to determine the cost that would incur to reverse the damage caused by the project. Subsequently, by the application of the Polluter Pays Principle, Span Motels had to pay an amount as compensation. The amount was to be utilised for restitution of the environmentally deteriorated area. The Supreme Court even barred the Motel from discharging untreated waste into River Beas.
Analysis and Remarks of Span Motels Case [M C Mehta v Kamal Nath & Ors]
In the Span Motel’s case, the Judiciary upheld environmental Justice in its true sense, while the Minister of Environment and Forest failed to do so. On the contrary, the then Minister of Environment and Forest, Mr. Kamal Nath was one of the reasons why Span Motels got the lease. The Minister of Environment and Forest put his pecuniary interest above the nation’s environmental resources and the issues following from it. In its finding, it was discovered that the Environment Minister’s family were holding majority shares in Span Motels and his ‘dream of having a house by a river was also noted by the Hon’ble Court. This case highlighted the lack of interest as depicted by the responsible government authorities and figures in dealing with the crucial issue of environmental degradation but rather instigated it. It was only because of the vigilant lawyers and the Apex Court that further destruction of the forest, as well as the river, could be prevented. Even the state government did a miserable job in handling this issue by granting permission for irreparable damages. The court did a commendable job in acknowledging and applying the Public Trust Doctrine, while the Minister of Environment and Forest failed to understand it in substance as well as spirit.
The case of M C Mehta v Kamal Nath & Ors. was a landmark case in environmental law and enfolded as a classic case of misuse of power by the Minister of Environment and Forest. The case highlights how the judiciary showed its maturity in upholding environmental justice, while the government (in this case the Minister of Environment and Forest along with the Himachal Pradesh State Government and the concerned officers) depicted their immaturity in preserving the environment. In the present case, the misuse of power had a direct impact on the environment and further gave rise to the problem of degradation of the environment.
[i] 1997 (1) SCC 388
[ii] AIR 1999 J K 81
[iii] AIR 1999 SC 2468
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