CASE ANALYSIS – MC MEHTA VS KAMAL NATH (1997)1 SCC 388

Abstract

MC Mehta V Kamal Nath, this case is one of the most important cases in environmental law in India It established that Doctrine of Public Trust is an essential component of the Indian legal framework. This case put a limelight on the rampant corruption prevalent in India. A high-ranking government official committing a breach in the very ministry he is heading is a gross atrocity. This case helped show how journalism and judiciary are the bastions of a healthy democracy. We will look at the facts, context, issues raised, arguments advanced and judgement of the case at hand.

Introduction

The Supreme Court of India was elucidated by an Indian Express news report about some nefarious activities taking place in Kulu- Manali, Himachal Pradesh which was having severe consequence on the Environment. The main party to these activities was a reputed Resort chain, “ Span Motels Pvt. Ltd. AN important fact to keep in mind is that incumbent environment minister of the time, Mr. Kamal Nath had established and direct holdings in the said company. These counsel for Mr Kamal Nath made no disputes to this fact and it can help infer many judgements. The motel in question was built on the bank of the River Beas on land which was leased by the government in 1981. There was further encroachment of land done by spa motels later leased out to the motel group. The establishment was in close proximity to the Beas River. This is a young, dynamic river and acts as a lifeline for many stakeholders. Span, with the help of bulldozers and earth movers charged the course of the Beas for their personal gain. The judgement had been given on December 13, 1996 holding Span liable. Following which, a fresh suit arose and Span was shown a notice to pay exemplary damages for not abiding by acts of the main judgement.[1]

Indian context

This case is one of the most vital judgements in Environmental law India . “Kamal Nath dares the mighty Beas to keep his dreams afloat”.[2] 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.[3]

Facts in brief

  • 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 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.

Summary of Leading cases with Important Issues

Repute newspaper at the time, Indian Express published a revealing expose that Span Motels Private Limited which was owned by the then Minister of environment and Forests, Kama Nath, had built a span club which encroached 27.12 acres of forest land. The encroachment and approval of the forest land was done during the tenure of Kama Nath. A consequence of the encroachment was the swelling of the Beas River which changed its course. The climatic consequence of this was that it caused soil erosion which resulted in landslides have a devastating result. The Beas river is a young and dynamic river. Permission for the construction of the motel was given by concerned government authorities

The Plethora of facts of the above case can be summarised into the main contentions that were a violation of principles of natural justice

  • Was it fair to induct Mr. Kamal Nath (Minister of environment and Forests) as a respondent in the present suit?
  • Was the construction activity carried out by Span legitimate and valid?

The Respondents contended the following to the issues brought to light

They did not dispute the fact that Mr Kamal Nath had ownership of the motel chain. It was the understanding of the respondents that the construction activity was carried out on Land which the motel company was in sole possession of and had legitimate possession over it. This was the very nature of a lease- hold relationship

The concerned authority of the given place ( Divisional Forest Officer) had duly consented and given permission for the respective construction activities to take place provided there was no cost incurred on the side of the State for the respective work

An important question that arises is, how was the forest land encroached and regularized in broad daylight?

According to the Indian Express expose Mr Kamal Nath, Minister of Environment and Forests had an ambition to possess a house on the banks of the beautiful river Beas. It was well established in the court proceedings that he had almost full ownership of the motel chain. The company took possession over the motel in 1981 and a new lease agreement was signed on the following date. This gives us a clear picture to the level of corruption that prevailed in India. If it was not for the press and the judiciary that acts as bastions of Justice, many gross atrocities like this would be rampant in our country.[4]

Doctrine of Public Trust

Legal doctrine are tenets and principles which are used as standard to help dispense justice. In the said case, “Doctrine of Public Trust” . This is a doctrine that dates back to the advent of governments. It stated that certain elements of the biosphere such as forests, rivers, beaches and the atmosphere were held by government in trusteeship for free and uninterrupted use of the public without any hinderance to them. In English law, the sovereign could not grant the rights to a property under the ambit of this doctrine as it would affect the rights of the public. For example a waterbodies primary purpose to the public is navigation and fishing. In light of the facts stated, this not only affected enjoyment of these rights but changed the course of the river causing tremendous damage to the environment. A very famous case of similar lines would be the Lak Mono Case decided upon by the Supreme Court of California

Final judgement

Public trust doctrine can be equated to law of the land.  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

The Motel was ordered to pay compensation by way of cost for the restitution of the environment and ecology of the area. 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. 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. This case help established the Doctrine of Public Trust as essential to law of the land. In the following cases it was cemented further Maharaj Singh v Indian Oil Corporation[5] & M. I. Builders v. Radhey Shyam Sahu[6]


[1]  MC Mehta vs Kamal Nath (1997)1 SCC 388

[2] ibid

[3] Mina Anand, Water: That precious public resource, The Telegraph, ( May 2nd , 2020, 23:00), https://www.telegraphindia.com/opinion/water-that-precious-public-resource/cid/1697386

[4] Lavu Sri Krishna, Accounting for every drop of water, The New Indian Express,  ( May 2nd , 2020, 23:00), https://www.newindianexpress.com/opinions/2019/nov/16/accounting-for-every-drop-of-water-2062371.html

[5] Maharaj Singh Vs IndianOil Coroporatio ( 1999) AIR 81

[6] M.I Builders v. Radhey Shyam Sahu ( 1999) AIR SC 2468.