M. C. Mehta v. Kamal Nath

BY:-Aditya Katyayan

CourtSupreme Court of India
Name of the CaseM. C. Mehta v. Kamal Nath & Ors.
Citation(1997) 1 SCC 388
Date of the Case13 December 1996
PetitionerM.C. Mehta
Respondent(s)Kamal Nath
Bench/JudgesKuldip Singh, S. Saghnr Ahma
Statutes/Constitution InvolvedIndian Constitution; Public Trust Doctrine
Important Sections/ ArticlesSection 41(2),41(3),42,42(2),43,44,45,45-A,47 and 48 of IPC; Section 15,15(1),16 and 17 of Environment (Protection) Act, 1986; Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981.

ABSTRACT

M. C. Mehta v. Kamal Nath and Ors.  is a landmark case in Indian environmental law. The Supreme Court of India held in this case that the Public Trust Doctrine and The Polluter Pays Principle will be applied in India.

INTRODUCTION

“Kamal Nath dares the mighty Beas to keep his dreams afloat”. This headline published in the Indian Express on February 25, 1996 and had lasting repercussions on the legal and government framework of India. This attention-grabbing headline was noticed by the Supreme Court and they took Suo Moto cognisance to see what the matter was about. The Span Resorts was a prestigious and well-established Hospitality chain at the time. A majority shareholder, owner and patron of the chain was the eminent leader Kamal Nath. Kamal Nath has had a history of controversy. The location of this dispute was the Span Resort at the Kulu Manali valley in Himachal Pradesh. Due to the selfish actions of the respondent, the public’s legal right was infringed. The judgement passed by the Supreme Court acts as a strong precedent for time to come.

BACKGROUND OF CASE

One of the Respondents, Span Hotels Pvt. Ltd. a private company had built motels on the forest land adjacent to River Beas. The same was taken on lease from the government for a period of 99 years. Subsequently, the respondents tried to divert the flow of Beas River using heavy earthmovers. They also constructed heavily cemented embankments along the river and further tried to encroach upon the surrounding barren forest land. Moreover, it transpired that the various acts of the Respondents were authorized by the Forest Department of Kulu. It is further alleged that Mr. Kamal Nath, one of the Respondents too was an interested party in the deal.

He was further the Minister-in-charge, Department of Environment and Forests at the time of signing of the lease deed between Span Hotels and the Himachal Government. The Supreme Court took Suo Moto notice of a news article that appeared in the Indian Express on February 25, 1999. The article read, “Kamal Nath dares the mighty Beas to keep his dreams afloat”. The Apex Court ordered the Central Pollution Control Board to file a report post the inspection of the area. The Report stated that the area is a question that was highly vulnerable with Beas being in an unstable state. It further advised long-term planning and flood control in Kulu.

FACTS OF THE CASE

  • The Indian Express published an article reporting that a private company, 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 19
  • 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 or not Mr. Kamal Nath has been precisely inducted as the Defendant in the writ petition?
  2. Whether or not the erection activity done by M/s SMPL was done with a vision to shield the charter hold land from floods?
  3. Whether or not the Public trust Doctrine is a part of the Indian Legal system?

ARGUMENTS OF THE PETITIONER

M.C. Mehta, who has been pursuing this case with the usual vigour and vehemence, has contended that if someone disturbs the ecological balance and tinkers with the innate conditions of rivers, forests, air and water, which are the offerings of nature, he/she would be at fault of violating not just the Fundamental Rights, guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution, but also for violating the fundamental duties to look after environment under Article 51A(g) which provides that it shall be the duty of every citizen to look after and develop the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife and to show compassion for living creatures.

ARGUMENTS OF THE RESPONDENT

  • Mr. Kamal Nath of the respondent’s side has firstly declared that he has been wronged in the above petition as he has no right, title or interest in ‘Span Resorts’. He also further states that the allegations made in the press reports are exaggerated and mala fide in nature and have been published to harm his reputation.
  • Mr. Banwari Lal Mathur, the Executive Director of Span Motels also disclosed the shareholding of Span Motels Pvt. Ltd, wherein, almost all the shares in the Motel are owned by the family of Mr. Kamal Nath. The Court, however, chose not to comment on this issue.
  • Mr. S. Mukerji, President of the Span Motels Pvt Ltd. tried to defend the actions of the Motel by stating that the act of restoring the river to its original course was done in the view of good faith towards the environment and in the interest of the community living in the nearby villages.
  • The Motel had also stated that they had taken actions which protected the land from erosion such as constructing crated, retaining walls and embankments along the river, but were unable to finish the work due to the allegations against them.

RELATED PROVISIONS

  • Section 41(2) Whoever fails to comply with any order issued under clause (c) of sub-section (1) of Section 32 or any direction issued by a court under Section 33(2) or any direction issued under Section 33-A shall, in respect of each such failure and on conviction, be punishable with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than one year and six months but which may extend to six years and with fine, and in case the failure continues, with an additional fine which may extend to five thousand rupees for every day during which such failure continues after the conviction for the first such failure.
  • Section41(3) If the failure referred to in sub-section (2) continues beyond a period of one year after the date of conviction, the offender shall, on conviction, be punishable with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than two years but which may extend to seven years and with fine.
  • Section 42 provides that a person shall be liable to be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three months or with fine which may extend to ten thousand rupees or with both.
  • Section 42(2) also contemplates imprisonment for a term which may extend to three months or with fine which may extend to ten thousand rupees or with both.
  • Section 43 contemplates penalty for contravention of the provisions of Section 24.
  • Section 44 contemplates penalty for contravention of Section 25 or Section 26. They also contemplate imposition of fine.
  • Section 45 provides that if a person who has been convicted of any offence under Section 24 or Section 25 or Section 26 is again found guilty of an offence involving a contravention of the same provision, he shall, on the second and on every subsequent conviction, be punishable with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than two years but which may extend to seven years and with fine.
  • Section 45-A provides that whoever contravenes any of the provisions of this Act or fails to comply with any order or direction given under this Act, for which no penalty has been elsewhere provided in this Act, shall be punishable with imprisonment which may extend to three months or with fine which may extend to ten thousand rupees or with both and in the case of continuing contravention or failure, he may be punished with an additional fine.
  • Section 47 contemplates offences by companies while Section 48 contemplates offences by government departments.
  • Section 15 of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 provides for penalty for contravention of the provisions of the Act and the rules, orders and directions made thereunder.
  • Section 15(1) speaks of imprisonment for a term which may extend to five years or with fine which may extend to one lakh rupees, or with both, and in case the failure or contravention continues, with additional fine which may extend to five thousand rupees for every day during which such failure or contravention continues after the conviction for the first such failure or contravention.
  • Section 16 of the Act contemplates offences by the companies while Section 17 contemplates offences by government departments.

JUDGMENT

The Supreme Court in this case stated that the Public Trust Doctrine first and foremost rests on the principle that the resources like air, sea, waters and forests have such great significance to the people as a whole that it would be unfair to make them a subject matter of private ownership. The court observed that:

“As rivers, forests, minerals and such different resources constitute a country’s normal riches. These resources are not to be misused and depleted by any one era. Each era owes an obligation to every succeeding era to create and save the normal resources of the country in the most ideal way. It is in light of a legitimate concern for humanity. It is in light of a legitimate concern for the country. Therefore, the Public Trust doctrine is a piece of the rule that everyone must follow. The court additionally decided that there is no any legitimate motivation to preclude the utilization of the Public Trust Doctrine in all biological communities in India”

The public trust doctrine, as said by the Court in the judgment was an element of the law of the land. The former approval granted by the Government of India, Ministry of Environment and Forest and the lease-deed dated 11.04.1994 in support of the Motel were quashed.

The lease granted to the Motel by the said lease-deed in respect of 27 bighas and 12 biswas of region, is cancelled and set aside. The Himachal Pradesh Government shall take over the region and restore it to its original-natural environment. The Motel shall pay compensation by way of cost for the restitution of the environment and ecology of the area. The contamination caused by various constitutions made by the Motel in the riverbed and the banks on the river Beas have to be removed and reversed.

Doctrine of Public Trust

The Supreme Court applied the ‘Doctrine of Public Trust’ to this 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 or by everyone in common.

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. 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 this 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 this 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.

HIGHLIGHTS

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

CONCLUSION

Therefore, the Court was of the view that the attempts to divert the river stream and the construction activities was degrading to the environment, which led to the application of “The Public Trust Doctrine” and the “Polluter Pays Principle” in India. The Court quashed the lease- deed by which the forested land was leased and ordered the Motel to pay compensation by way of cost for the restitution of the environment and ecology of the area.

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