(1997) 1 SCC 388

Provisions Involved

Article 48A & 51A (g)


A private company “Span Motels Pvt Ltd.” Had built a motel on the bank of the river Beas on the land leased by the Indian Government in 1981. Kamal Nath who was the Minister of Environment and Forest had direct links with this company. The company also encroached upon an additional area of land adjoining this leasehold area, which was later leased out to Span Motels when Kamal Nath was minister in 1994. The Motels used bulldozers and earthmovers to divert the flow of river Beas and create a new channel and change its course. This step was taken by the company to save the Motels from future floods. But such activities by the company caused floods in the river and a property worth Rs. 105 Crores was destroyed.


The main issue of this case was regarding the legality of the construction carried out by the Span Motels. The question, which was raised by the petitioner, was whether the construction activity carried out by the Motel Company was justified or not?


The court pointed out that the case was clearly a struggle between the members of the society who would preserve our ecological resources and those charged with administrative responsibilities, who find it necessary to encroach to some extent open lands because of the changing needs of an increasing complex society. However, there is no law which can resolve such conflicts. But it should be the priority of the administration to protect the ecological resources.

The court applied the ‘Doctrine of Public Trust’ to the case. This doctrine rests on the principle that certain natural resources like sea, air, forests and water have such great importance and it would totally be unjustified to make them a subject of private ownership. Hence, such resources should be available to all the people in the society. 

In this case, there is a large river basin, which is a part of a protected forestland. However, the Government of Himachal Pradesh leased such land to the Span Motels for commercial purposes. Hence, the H.P. Government was also held liable for committing a patent breach of Public Trust by leasing such fragile land to the Motel Company.


The court cancelled the lease-deed by which the land was leased to the company. The bench also stated that the construction activity, which was carried out by the Company, was not at all justified. The court also ordered the Motel to pay compensation as a way for restoration of the environmental damage done. The motel was instructed to construct a boundary wall around the building to ensure that they do not use the land of the river basin. The Motel Company was restricted to discharge any untreated effluent into the river.