Forests, Polluter Pays, Wetlands
The Court took notice of an article which appeared in the Indian Express stating that a private company "Span Motels Pvt. Ltd.", to which the family of Kamal Nath, a former Minister of Environment and Forests, had a direct link, had built a motel on the bank of the River Beas on land leased by the Indian Government in 1981. Span Motels had also encroached upon an additional area of land adjoining this leasehold area, and this area was later leased out to Span Motels when Kamal Nath was Minister in 1994. The motel used earthmovers and bulldozers to turn the course of the River Beas, create a new channel and divert the river’s flow. The course of the river was diverted to save the motel from future floods. The Supreme Court of India decided that prior approval for the additional leasehold land, given in 1994, was quashed and the Government was ordered to take over the area and restore it to its original condition. Span Motels was ordered to pay compensation to restore the environment, and the various constructions on the bank of the River Beas were to be removed and reversed. Span Motels was also required to show why a pollution fine in addition should not be imposed, pursuant to the polluter pays principle. Regarding the land covered by the 1981 lease, Span Motels was required to construct a boundary wall around the area covered by this lease, and Span Motels was ordered not to encroach upon any part of the river basin. In addition, the motel was prohibited from discharging untreated effluents into the river. This ruling was based on the public trust doctrine, under which the Government is the trustee of all natural resources which are by nature meant for public use and enjoyment. The Court reviewed public trust cases from the United States and noted that under English common law this doctrine extended only to traditional uses such as navigation, commerce and fishing, but that the doctrine is now being extended to all ecologically important lands, including freshwater, wetlands and riparian forests. The Court relied on these cases to rule that the Government committed patent breach of public trust by leasing this ecologically fragile land to Span Motels when it was purely for commercial uses.