The doctrine which was enunciated way back by the Roman Empire got its modern form by the U.S court in Illinois Central Railroad Company v. People of the State of Illinois. In the factual matrix of the case, the court went on stating that “The bed or soil of navigable waters is held by the people of the State in their character as sovereign, in trust for public uses for which they are adapted. The State holds the title to the bed of navigable waters upon a public trust, and no alienation or disposition of such property by the State, which does not recognize and is not in execution of this trust, is permissible”

Prof Sax who is considered to be an authority regarding the concept of the Public Trust Doctrine gave three founding principles which are as follows:-

  1. The property subject to the trust must not only be used for a public purpose, but it must be held available for use by the general public
  2. The property may not be sold, even for fair cash equivalent
  3. The property must be maintained for particular types of use,

(i)  either traditional uses, or

(ii) some uses particular to that form of resources.

The Doctrine of public trust tries to protect the interest of the public by making government the trustee of the public holding which should be used for the welfare of general public and which should be made available to the public at large. It tries to put a check on the government form making any kind of damage to the environment in the name of economic development. It could be said the Doctrine of Public Trust is some way intern-linked the concept of intergenerational equity which states that development should made to meet the need of the present generation but it should not hamper the necessity that would arise for the future generation. The international law which talks about justice breathes life to this concept. It evolved in the Stockholm Conference through the principle of sustainable development. The sustainable development principle recognizes the responsibility “to protect and improve” the environment for both present and future generation.

It would be apt if we look in to the preamble of the Stockholm conference which is referred below:

“To defend and improve the environment for present and future generations has become an imperative goal for mankind – a goal to be pursued together with, and in harmony with, the established and fundamental goals of peace and of world-wide economic and social development.” The Declaration’s first principle provides that “man… bears a solemn responsibility to protect and improve the environment for present and future generations,” while the second declares that the “natural resources of the earth, including the air, water, land, flora and fauna… must be safeguarded for the benefit of present and future generations through careful planning and management.”

The reason why environmental concerns are increasing day by day is the lack of technical advancements which leads to depletion of environment and irreversible effects.

Public Trust doctrine and representative action:

The Public trust doctrine is mostly brought into action through a representation suit which is dealt under Order 1 Rule 8 of Civil Procedure Code. The concept of “Public Trust Doctrine” in India is totally developed under the supervision of courts of law through representative actions made by the people at large. The present scenario of India is changing which calls for development and technological advancements at the cost of environmental depletion. We may quench the need for current requirements but at the cost of environmental depletion which is irreversible due to lack of technical advancements. We talk about employment generation, woman empowerment, economic stability and various other issues but we often over look the Mother Nature. Shifting the onus upon the government itself won’t work. Even though the government acts as a trustee to protect the environment; our right to have a proper environment to live (which is guaranteed under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution) would be continuously violated if we stand ignorant of our rights and duties.


Trishna Roy

Trishna is a law student at Damodaram Sanjivayya National Law University, Visakhapatnam. She is an active debater and has participated in various debates across the nation. Her interest lies in Human Rights and Constitutional Law.