Government has no right to alienate, transfer or distribute natural resources/national assets otherwise than by following a fair and transparent method consistent with the fundamentals of the equality clause enshrined in the Constitution
Centre for Public Interest Litigation and others versus Union of India and others Writ Petition(Civil) 423 of 2010
At the outset, we consider it proper to observe that even though there is no universally accepted definition of natural resources, they are generally understood as elements having intrinsic utility to mankind. They may be renewable or non renewable. They are thought of as the individual elements of the natural environment that provide economic and social services to human society and are considered valuable in their relatively unmodified, natural, form. A natural resource’s value rests in the amount of the material available and the demand for it. The latter is determined by its usefulness to production. Natural resources belong to the people but the State legally owns them on behalf of its people and from that point of view natural resources are considered as national assets, more so because the State benefits immensely from their value. The State is empowered to distribute natural resources. However, as they constitute public property/national asset, while distributing natural resources, the State is bound to act in consonance with the principles of equality and public trust and ensure that no action is taken which may be detrimental to public interest. Like any other State action, constitutionalism must be reflected at every stage of the distribution of natural resources. In Article 39(b) of the Constitution it has been provided that the ownership and control of the material resources of the community should be so distributed so as to best sub-serve the common good, but no comprehensive legislation has been enacted to generally define natural resources and a framework for their protection. Of course, environment laws enacted by Parliament and State legislatures deal with specific natural resources, i.e., Forest, Air, Water, Costal Zones, etc.
The ownership regime relating to natural resources can also be ascertained from international conventions and customary international law, common law and national constitutions. In international law, it rests upon the concept of sovereignty and seeks to respect the principle of permanent sovereignty (of peoples and nations) over (their) natural resources as asserted in the 17th Session of the United Nations General Assemble and then affirmed as a customary international norm by the International Court of Justice in the case opposing the Democratic Republic of Congo to Uganda. Common Law recognizes States as having the authority to protect natural resources insofar as the resources are within the interests of the general public. The State is deemed to have a proprietary interest in natural resources and must act as guardian and trustee in relation to the same. Constitutions across the world focus on establishing natural resources as owned by, and for the benefit of, the country. In most instances where constitutions specifically address ownership of natural resources, the Sovereign State, or, as it is more commonly expressed, ‘the people’, is designated as the owner of the natural resource.
Spectrum has been internationally accepted as a scarce, finite and renewable natural resource which is susceptible to degradation in case of inefficient utilisation. It has a high economic value in the light of the demand for it on account of the tremendous growth in the telecom sector. Although it does not belong to a particular State, right of use has been granted to States as per international norms.
In India, the Courts have given an expansive interpretation to the concept of natural resources and have from time to time issued directions, by relying upon the provisions contained in Articles 38, 39, 48, 48A and 51A(g), for protection and proper allocation/distribution of natural resources and have repeatedly insisted on compliance of the constitutional principles in the process of distribution, transfer and alienation to private persons. The doctrine of public trust, which was evolved in Illinois Central Railroad Co. v. People of the State of Illinois 146 U.S. 387 (1892), has been held by this Court to be a part of the Indian jurisprudence in M.C. Mehta v. Kamal Nath (1997) 1 SCC 388 and has been applied in Jamshed Hormusji Wadia v. Board of Trustee, Port of Mumbai (2002) 3 SCC 214, Intellectuals Forum, Tirupathi v. State of A.P. (2006) 3 SCC 549 and Fomento Resorts and Hotels Limited v. Minguel Martins (2009) 3 SCC 571. In Jamshed Hormusji Wadia’s case, this Court held that the State’s actions and the actions of its agencies/instrumentalities must be for the public good, achieving the objects for which they exist and should not be arbitrary or capricious. In the field of contracts, the State and its instrumentalities should design their activities in a manner which would ensure competition and not discrimination. They can augment their resources but the object should be to serve the public cause and to do public good by resorting to fair and reasonable methods. In Fomento Resorts and Hotels Limited case, the Court referred to the article of Prof. Joseph L. Sax and made the following observations:
The public trust doctrine enjoins upon the Government to protect the resources for the enjoyment of the general public rather than to permit their use for private ownership or commercial purposes. This doctrine puts an implicit embargo on the right of the State to transfer public properties to private party if such transfer affects public interest, mandates affirmative State action for effective management of natural resources and empowers the citizens to question ineffective management thereof.
The heart of the public trust doctrine is that it imposes limits and obligations upon government agencies and their administrators on behalf of all the people and especially future generations. For example, renewable and non-renewable resources, associated uses, ecological values or objects in which the public has a special interest (i.e. public lands, waters, etc.) are held subject to the duty of the State not to impair such resources, uses or values, even if private interests are involved. The same obligations apply to managers of forests, monuments, parks, the public domain and other public assets.Professor Joseph L. Sax in his classic article, “The Public Trust Doctrine in Natural Resources Law: Effective Judicial Intervention” (1970), indicates that the public trust doctrine, of all concepts known to law, constitutes the best practical and philosophical premise and legal tool for protecting public rights and for protecting and managing resources, ecological values or objects held in trust.
The public trust doctrine is a tool for exerting long-established public rights over short-term public rights and private gain. Today every person exercising his or her right to use the air, water, or land and associated natural ecosystems has the obligation to secure for the rest of us the right to live or otherwise use that same resource or property for the long-term and enjoyment by future generations. To say it another way, a landowner or lessee and a water right holder has an obligation to use such resources in a manner as not to impair or diminish the people’s rights and the people’s long-term interest in that property or resource, including down slope lands, waters and resources.”
In Secretary, Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, Govt. of India v.Cricket Assn. of Bengal, (1995) 2 SCC 161, the Court was dealing with the right of organizers of an event, such as a sport tournament, to its live audiovisual broadcast, universally, through an agency of their choice, national or foreign. In paragraph 78, the Court described the airwaves/frequencies as public property in the following words:“There is no doubt that since the airwaves/frequencies are a public property and are also limited, they have to be used in the best interest of the society and this can be done either by a central authority by establishing its own broadcasting network or regulating the grant of licences to other agencies, including the private agencies.”
In Reliance Natural Resources Limited v. Reliance Industries Limited, (2010) 7 SCC 1, P. Sathasivam J., with whom Balakrishnan, C.J., agreed, made the following observations: “It must be noted that the constitutional mandate is that the natural resources belong to the people of this country. The nature of the word “vest” must be seen in the context of the public trust doctrine (PTD). Even though this doctrine has been applied in cases dealing with environmental jurisprudence, it has its broader application.” Learned Judge then referred to the judgments, In re Special Reference No. 1 of 2001 (2004) 4 SCC 489, M.C. Mehta v. Kamal Nath (1997) 1 SCC 388 and observed:
“This doctrine is part of Indian law and finds application in the present case as well. It is thus the duty of the Government to provide complete protection to the natural resources as a trustee of the people at large.”
The Court also held that natural resources are vested with the Government as a matter of trust in the name of the people of India, thus it is the solemn duty of the State to protect the national interest and natural resources must always be used in the interests of the country and not private interests.
As natural resources are public goods, the doctrine of equality, which emerges from the concepts of justice and fairness, must guide the State in determining the actual mechanism for distribution of natural resources. In this regard, the doctrine of equality has two aspects: first, it regulates the rights and obligations of the State vis-à-vis its people and demands that the people be granted equitable access to natural resources and/or its products and that they are adequately compensated for the transfer of the resource to the private domain; and second, it regulates the rights and obligations of the State vis-à-vis private parties seeking to acquire/use the resource and demands that the procedure adopted for distribution is just, non-arbitrary and transparent and that it does not discriminate between similarly placed private parties.
In Akhil Bharatiya Upbhokta Congress v. State of M.P. (2011) 5 SCC 29, this Court examined the legality of the action taken by the Government of Madhya Pradesh to allot 20 acres land to an institute established in the name of Kushabhau Thakre on the basis of an application made by the Trust. One of the grounds on which the appellant challenged the allotment of land was that the State Government had not adopted any rational method consistent with the doctrine of equality. The High Court negatived the appellant’s challenge.
Before this Court, learned senior counsel appearing for the State relied upon the judgments in Ugar Sugar Works Ltd. v. Delhi Administration (2001) 3 SCC 635, State of U.P. v. Choudhary Rambeer Singh (2008) 5 SCC 550, State of Orissa v. Gopinath Dash (2005) 13 SCC 495 and Meerut Development Authority v. Association of Management Studies (2009) 6 SCC 171 and argued that the Court cannot exercise the power of judicial review to nullify the policy framed by the State Government to allot Nazul land without advertisement.
This Court rejected the argument, referred to the judgments in Ramanna Dayaram Shetty v. International Airport Authority of India (1979) 3 SCC 489, S.G. Jaisinghani v. Union of India AIR 1967 SC 1427, Kasturilal Lakshmi Reddy v. State of J & K (1980) 4 SCC 1, Common Cause v. Union of India (1996) 6 SCC 530, Shrilekha Vidyarthy v. State of U.P. (1991) 1 SCC 212, LIC v. Consumer Education and Research Centre (1995) 5 SCC 482, New India Public School v. HUDA (1996) 5 SCC 510 and held:
“What needs to be emphasised is that the State and/or its agencies/instrumentalities cannot give largesse to any person according to the sweet will and whims of the political entities and/or officers of the State. Every action/decision of the State and/or its agencies/instrumentalities to give largesse or confer benefit must be founded on a sound, transparent, discernible and well-defined policy, which shall be made known to the public by publication in the Official Gazette and other recognised modes of publicity and such policy must be implemented/executed by adopting a non-discriminatory and non-arbitrary method irrespective of the class or category of persons proposed to be benefited by the policy. The distribution of largesse like allotment of land, grant of quota, permit licence, etc. by the State and its agencies/instrumentalities should always be done in a fair and equitable manner and the element of favouritism or nepotism shall not influence the exercise of discretion, if any, conferred upon the particular functionary or officer of the State.”
In Sachidanand Pandey v. State of West Bengal (1987) 2 SCC 295, the Court referred to some of the precedents and laid down the following propositions:
“State-owned or public-owned property is not to be dealt with at the absolute discretion of the executive. Certain precepts and principles have to be observed. Public interest is the paramount consideration. One of the methods of securing the public interest, when it is considered necessary to dispose of a property, is to sell the property by public auction or by inviting tenders. Though that is the ordinary rule, it is not an invariable rule. There may be situations where there are compelling reasons necessitating departure from the rule but then the reasons for the departure must be rational and should not be suggestive of discrimination. Appearance of public justice is as important as doing justice. Nothing should be done which gives an appearance of bias, jobbery or nepotism.”
In conclusion, we hold that the State is the legal owner of the natural resources as a trustee of the people and although it is empowered to distribute the same, the process of distribution must be guided by the constitutional principles including the doctrine of equality and larger public good.
Can the Courts interfere in Policy decisions of the Government
In majority of judgments relied upon by learned Attorney General and learned counsel for the respondents, it has been held that the power of judicial review should be exercised with great care and circumspection and the Court should not ordinarily interfere with the policy decisions of the Government in financial matters. There cannot be any quarrel with the proposition that the Court cannot substitute its opinion for the one formed by the experts in the particular field and due respect should be given to the wisdom of those who are entrusted with the task of framing the policies. We are also conscious of the fact that the Court should not interfere with the fiscal policies of the State. However, when it is clearly demonstrated that the policy framed by the State or its agency/instrumentality and/or its implementation is contrary to public interest or is violative of the constitutional principles, it is the duty of the Court to exercise its jurisdiction in larger public interest and reject the stock plea of the State that the scope of judicial review should not be exceeded beyond the recognised parameters. When matters like these are brought before the judicial constituent of the State by public spirited citizens, it becomes the duty of the Court to exercise its power in larger public interest and ensure that the institutional integrity is not compromised by those in whom the people have reposed trust and who have taken oath to discharge duties in accordance with the Constitution and the law without fear or favour, affection or ill will and who, as any other citizen, enjoy fundamental rights and, at the same time, are bound to perform the duties enumerated in Article 51A. Reference in this connection can usefully be made to the judgment of the three Judge Bench headed by Chief Justice Kapadia in Centre for P.I.L. v. Union of India (2011) 4 SCC 1.
Before concluding, we consider it imperative to observe that but for the vigilance of some enlightened citizens who held important constitutional and other positions and discharged their duties in larger public interest and Non Governmental Organisations who have been constantly fighting for clean governance and accountability of the constitutional institutions, unsuspecting citizens and the Nation would never have known how the scarce natural resource spared by Army has been grabbed by those who enjoy money power and who have been able to manipulate the system.
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