Public Trust Doctrine- Safeguarding Interests of Future Generations
Author: Vibhuti Mittal
I Year | Dharmashastra National Law University, Jabalpur
Who owns the Earth’s natural resources? Who has the duty to maintain the environment for forthcoming generations? Should we blame the state or mankind at large for its depletion? Does nature just balance itself out every time human beings try to create an imbalance by intervening in the natural cycle? Do we all have the right to use natural resources as per our whims and fancies without caring about sustainability? Do the future generations have a right to the environment? The answer to these questions is the very basis of the public trust doctrine in environmental law.
Public Trust Doctrine:
Public Trust Doctrine says that natural resources are not private property. No one can have private ownership over them. These are a gift from nature, thus every living being has the right to freely access them irrespective of his/her social status. The doctrine makes the government or the state, a trustee of such resources. It also binds the states to ensure the sustainability of these resources for the general public and not allow private ownership.
Basically, the doctrine helps in making the state accountable for the environmental damage caused and protects the right of the people. But, there has not been any interpretation that extends such duty to the generation which has not been born yet. The present article discusses the same and puts forth the idea that the public trust doctrine not only makes the state accountable but also makes it a duty for the present generation to protect the right to the environment for the future generation.
Government’s duty to preserve the environment:
The public trust doctrine serves the purpose of affirmation of state power for the usage of public property only for public purposes. In the case of M.C.Mehta v Kamal Nath , the Supreme Court of India observed that natural resources like air, water, and forest covers are of great significance to the public at large.
“These resources are not to be frittered away and exhausted by any one generation. Every generation owes a duty to all succeeding generations to develop and conserve the natural resources of the nation in the best possible way. It is in the interest of mankind. It is in the interest of the nation. Thus, the Public Trust doctrine is a part of the law of the land.”
However, the present government is accountable to the present citizens only. In such a situation, who is responsible to safeguard the rights of the future generations?
Citizens’ Duty and Public Trust Doctrine:
The previous interpretation acts as a limitation to the public trust doctrine as it restricts itself to the duty of government. But in reality, the present generation also needs to be made accountable to protect the rights of the future generation. This can be done only if we make it a legal duty and not a mere moral obligation.
It is a well-established fact that unchecked exploitation of natural resources by previous generations has led to today’s disastrous situation. The previous governments or those in power must also be blamed. Every single person who used those resources carelessly, without thinking of the sustainability of those resources is to be blamed. If we don’t make the present generation accountable, we would be committing the same mistake.
The younger generation is aware of their rights and it is visible through actions whether it is through the ‘Fridays for Future’ movement by Greta Thunberg or other young environmentalists that have come up recently. Thus, the public at large and not just the government must be made legally accountable to future generations.
Barriers in Enforcing Public Trust Doctrine:
The United Nations, in 1997, adopted a declaration on “Responsibilities of Present Generation towards Future Generation” which talks about the right of future generations and what is the duty of the present generation to protect those rights. In the declaration, Articles 4-7 talk about environmental rights. On the same line, international law has also started to incorporate the idea of intergenerational justice.
The main barrier to implementing these laws is the lack of authority to keep a check on the proper implementation. If we mandate the public at large to protect their rights and they violate these laws, who will hold them accountable? Who will have the locus in the court of law to petition for enforcement of the rights of the future generations?
Giving the government the responsibility to check the implementation of such a law will defeat the purpose of the doctrine which empowers the beneficiaries (future generations) to sue. In addition to that, the calculation of damages or punishments that need to be awarded is another hurdle. If the punishment exceeds the damage caused then it will be an injustice to the offender.
If the opposite happens, it will defeat the purpose of making the law. Hence, these are a few things that lawmakers will need to deliberate upon before enforcing the rights of future generations.
To conclude, we can look at the example of the Iroquois, the Native American people. They make every law by considering its impact on the next seven generations. They think of every action on the principle of sustainability.
The public trust doctrine also works on the same principle, by taking into account the impact of present actions on future generations. Thus, to incorporate the principle of sustainability with respect to environmental laws, it is important to look at the public trust doctrine with a different interpretation.
It is essential to make the present generation accountable, only then will the future generation be able to live comfortably on this planet. Only if the present generation works hard will the future generations’ right to the environment be preserved.
 Paromita Goswami, Public Trust Doctrine: implications of democratization of water governance, 9 NUJS LAW REVIEW 67 (2016)
 M.C.Mehta v Kamal Nath (1997) 1 SCC 388
 Fridays for Future, https://fridaysforfuture.org/what-we-do/who-we-are/
 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, (UNESCO), Declaration on the Responsibilities of the Present Generations Towards Future Generations: UNESCO
 Laura Villadiego, Should we legislate on the rights of the future generations? , EQUAL TIMES ( June 26, 2020, 9:45 am), https://www.equaltimes.org/should-we-legislate-on-the-right#.YPAL6egzY2w
Editor: Ananya Manjunath