Reservation on the basis of State Domicile: A Practice Unfair to People and Unexpected of Governments

“The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them.” 

Article 15(1) of the Constitution of India


Reservations are the biggest enemy of meritocracy. By offering reservation through relaxed entry criteria, we are fuelling inflation of moderate credentials as opposed to the promotion of merit-based education system, which is the foundation of many progressive countries. Meritocracy should not be polluted by injecting relaxation of entry barriers, rather should be encouraged by offering financial aids to the underprivileged although deserving candidates only.

From a political science perspective, the State has the obligation to look after the welfare of its subjects. The Government although justifies its reservation policies on grounds of confidence building and providing equality of opportunity to the disadvantaged sections of the society, the reservations basing on domicile and residence is entirely a separate infringement. The State subsequently has deprived the meritorious class through an unreasonable and perverse domicile reservation. This marks the departure from the field of justness, fairness and reasonableness guaranteed by the rule of law that is supposed to be supreme in our constitutional set-up.

Understanding Domicile

Domicile as a concept is of immense importance, both in municipal law as well as in private international law or the conflicts of laws, as it is called. The concept denotes “the place of living”, or more precisely a permanent residence. Domicile is the legal relationship between an individual and a territory with a distinctive legal system which invokes that system as his personal law.[1] Although the notion which lies behind the concept of domicile is of “permanent residence” or a “permanent home”, yet domicile is primarily a legal concept for the purposes of determining what is the “personal law” applicable to an individual and therefore, even if an individual has no permanent residence or permanent home, even then he is invested with a “domicile” albeit by law or implication of law. 

Now, it has been argued at various places that the term “place of birth” occurs in clause (1) of Article 15 but not “domicile”. If a comparison is made between Article 15(1) and Article 16(2) of the Constitution of India, it would appear that whereas the former refers to “place of birth” alone, the latter refers to both “domicile” and “residence” apart from place of birth. A distinction, therefore, has been made by the makers of the Constitution themselves to the effect that the expression “place of birth” is not synonymous to the expression “domicile” and they reflect two different concepts. But it is also true that both the expressions appeared to be synonymous to some of the members of the Constituent Assembly.

That certainly is not an issue. The deprivation of seats at educational institutions of national importance to deserving and meritorious candidates merely because they are resident in a different State creates an unjustified classification which assails Article 14 which has a wider ambit than Article 15(1).

Flawed Justifications

A perusal of the analysis of Pradeep Jain v. Union of India[2] that invalidated wholesale reservation on the basis of domicile or residence, and D.P. Joshi v. State of M.B.[3] reveals that two considerations have weighed with the courts in justifying departure from the principle of merit-based selection viz.:

(1) The claim of State interest in providing adequate medical service to the people of the State by imparting medical education to students who by reason of their residence in the State would be likely to settle down and serve the people of the State as doctors i.e. doctrine of sons of soil.

(2) The region’s claim of backwardness.

Now, even a certain amount of reservation on the basis of domicile and residence would mean discrimination as even a minimal departure creates an irrational class depriving a meritorious candidate of his fundamental rights and these justifications listed above are as fallacious as they can be. Firstly, there appears to be no reasonable guarantee that an individual having his residence in a State would practice a profession in his own State after he has graduated. Various surveys[4] have reflected that a very high majority of individuals getting admission under domicile reservation quotas, after graduation, pursue their careers in different States or in fact owing to globalisation, in different countries. Secondly, there is absolutely no rationale behind employing domicile-based reservations to curb backwardness as a person having or not having residence in a particular State has nothing to do with backwardness. It thus seems that there clearly has been an error in identifying the source of the problem.

The Court has, no doubt, by its decisions in D.P. Joshi case[5] and N. Vasundara v. State of Mysore[6] sustained the constitutional validity of reservation based on residence requirement within a State for the purpose of admission to medical colleges. But it is essential to note that the reasoning behind this appears to have been per incuriam. The Court believed that if admissions are given on the basis of all-India national entrance examination, each individual would have an equal opportunity of securing admission, but that would not take into account diverse considerations, such as, differing levels of social, economic and educational development of different regions, disparity in the number of seats available for admission to the MBBS course in different States, difficulties which may be experienced by students from one region who might in the competition on all-India basis get admission to the MBBS course in another region far remote from their own and other allied factors.

But if that were the case, then reserving seats for candidates from a single State would hardly serve the purpose since similar or higher social and educational backwardness is likely to exists in other States. The Court has rightly viewed that a brilliant student should not be impeded from getting his deserved share of education on geographical grounds when there is a common examination for determining merit.[7]

An Unusual Political Organisation

State domicile quotas are hence nothing but the State exercising its powers for the welfare of the people which would have been entirely fair had it not been with respect to universities of national importance. The State Governments must aim at welfare of individuals belonging to their State but such reservations may focus on the social and educational backward classes of people appearing for the State entrance examinations. Once there is a university of national importance allotting seats on the basis of an all-India entrance examination, allowing reservation on the basis of residence in a particular State would be as discriminatory as intra-State domiciliary classification which has been held to be discriminatory in A. Peeriakaruppan v. State of T.N.[8] There in fact is a huge hue and cry about economic backwardness which has also formed a ground for allowing reservation. If we look carefully, Article 15(4) frees the State from restrictions on making reservation policies with regards to socially and educationally backward classes only. Nowhere does the Constitution talk about economic backwardness and it has also been held in Janki Prasad Parimoo v. State of J&K[9] that mere poverty cannot be a consideration for the test of backwardness for the purpose of enabling reservations.

Delhi University, a Central university in the capital of India was not to be left behind. In 1978, the 48% reservation quota for Delhi graduates for admission to postgraduate medical courses was raised to 70% with entry point left open to them from the rest of the 30% “open” (for Indians) seats also. The University justified the reservation on the ground that all other universities practised university-wise reservations. The Health Minister of India justified it on the ground that the students had fasted at his residence for raising the limit and the Supreme Court justified it in Jagadish Saran v. Union of India[10], on the grounds that the Delhi students were from families drawn from all over India, not sons of the soil. The practice of reservation by all other universities prejudiced Delhi students’ chances—this indirect, real yet heavy handicap created discrimination and cannot be wished away and needs to be corrected by some percentage of reservation or other legitimate device, and that the Delhi students could not be made martyrs of the Constitution.[11]

The question that arises is whether in a federal structure, the State Governments by the mere virtue of funding universities have the power to make such laws which favour individuals residing in their State. It is true that with respect to subjects set out in List II of the Seventh Schedule to the Constitution, the States have the power to make laws and subject to the overriding power of Parliament, the State can also make laws with respect to subjects enumerated in List III of the Seventh Schedule to the Constitution, but the legal system under the rubric of which such laws are made by the States is a single legal system which may truly be described as the Indian legal system. It would be absurd to suggest that the legal system varies from State to State or that the legal system of a State is different from the legal system of the Union of India, merely because with respect to the subjects within their legislative competence, the State have power to make laws.

“Education” appears both in the Union List as also in the Concurrent List. The relevant entries in the Constitution are as under:

List I? 66. Coordination and determination of standards in institutions for higher education or research and scientific and technical institutions.

List III? 25. Education, including technical education, medical education and universities, subject to the provisions of Entries 63, 64, 65 and 66 of List I; vocational and technical training of labour.

Now, in a democratic set-up, the mere fact that a national university is being funded by a State Government does not give the State Government the power or privilege to reserve seats for individuals resident within its territory. The federal structure of India is one of cooperative nature where the powers are distributed between the Centre and the States and exercised in cooperation with each other. Under the Indian Constitution, there are certain provisions[12] which authorise federal supervision of local execution of national laws. These provisions reflect the supremacy of the Union over the States.

Article 1, which describes India as a Union of States reflect the kind of federalism prevalent in India. Article 258 of the Constitution empowers the Union to confer powers in the State in certain cases. In funding and managing the educational institutions in their respective territories, the State Governments are carrying out the functions of the Centre in allegiance to the federal structure. The States are simply alleviating additional burden on the Centre and by doing so, cannot and should not confer themselves with power to an extent of creating a separate power as strong as the Centre. If the State Governments make laws to favour their students on a national platform, this would be like the State becoming a separate entity from the Union which is forbidden. This would defeat the whole purpose of having a State as an organisational set-up.

Halsbury’s Law of England too states as under: 

In federal States some branches of law are within the competence of the federal authorities and for these purposes the whole federation will be subject to a single system of law and an individual may be spoken of as domiciled in the federation as a whole; other branches of law are within the competence of the State or provinces of the federation and the individual will be domiciled in one State or province only. [13]

For this very reason, Article 5 of the Constitution is clear and explicit on this point and it refers only to one domicile, namely, “domicile in the territory of India”. The Court in Pradeep Jain case [14] observed that:

“8. … It is dangerous to use a legal concept for conveying a sense different that which is ordinarily associated with it as a result of legal usage over the years. Therefore, it is strongly urged upon the State Government to exercise this wrong use of the expression “domicile” from the rules regulating admissions to their educational institutions and particularly medical colleges and to desist from introducing and maintaining domiciliary requirement as a condition of eligibility for such admissions.”

However, in respect of considering the word “domicile” as residential requirement, the Supreme Court unreservedly condemned wholesale reservation made by some of the State Governments on the basis of “domicile” or residence requirement within the State or on the basis of institutional preference for students who have passed the qualifying examination held by the university or the State excluding all students not satisfying this requirement, regardless of merit.””


What is therefore necessary, is to set up proper and adequate structures in rural areas where competent medical services can be provided by doctors and some motivation must be provided to the doctors servicing those areas. But, as the position stands today, there is considerable paucity of seats in medical colleges to satisfy the increasing demand of students for admission and some principle has, therefore, to be evolved for making selection of students for admission to the medical colleges and such principle has to be in conformity with the requirement of Article 14.

It would run counter to the basic principle of equality before the law and equal protection of the law if a citizen by reason of his residence in State A, which ordinarily in the commonality of cases, would be the result of his birth in a place situate within that State, should have opportunity for education or advancement which is denied to another citizen because he happens to be resident in State B. It is axiomatic that talent is not the monopoly of the residents of any particular State; it is more or less evenly distributed and given proper opportunity and environment, everyone has a prospect of rising to the peak. What is necessary is equality of opportunity and that cannot be made dependent upon where a citizen resides. If every citizen is afforded equal opportunity, genetically and environmentally, to develop his potential, he will be able in his own way to manifest his faculties fully leading to all-round improvement in excellence. The philosophy and pragmatism of universal excellence through equality of opportunity for education and advancement across the nation is part of our founding faith and constitutional creed. The effort must, therefore, always be to select the best and most meritorious students for admission to technical institutions and medical colleges by providing equal opportunity to all citizens in the country and no citizen can legitimately, without serious detriment to the unity and integrity of the nation, be regarded as an outsider in our constitutional set-up. Moreover, it would be against national interest to admit in medical colleges or other institutions giving instruction in specialities, less meritorious students when more meritorious students are available, simply because the former are permanent residents or residents for a certain number of years in the State while the latter are not, though both categories are citizens of India. Exclusion of more meritorious students on the ground that they are not resident within the State would be likely to promote substandard candidates and bring about fall in medical competence, injurious in the long run to the very region. It is no blessing to inflict quacks and medical midgets on people by wholesale sacrifice of talent at the threshold.

Parliament has also the legislative competence in terms of Entry 25, List III of the Seventh Schedule to the Constitution to make laws involving the subject-matter of education. It, for education and particularly higher education where excellence is required, while enacting law must also foresee that in the era of liberalisation and globalisation, Indian citizens must compete with their counterparts of the developed countries. Merit, thus, must be allowed to explore to the fullest extent. Genius hidden in the citizens must be allowed to blossom.[15] The State is a politically organised society and each organisation within the State is expected to cooperate with every other organisation for the achievement of the State’s objectives. The State here is the Union of India and its objectives are to holistically ensure benefits to every section of the society. Also, in achieving such ends, importance must be given to the basic philosophies of human existence i.e. to give every individual what he deserves.

Universities, admission to which is done through merit at an all-India examination are universities of national importance and takes aspiring students from throughout India. So, where reservations for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes are for the whole of the country, reservations on the basis of residence or domicile in a particular State is unjust. Thus, although some reservations may still be necessary for the socio-political condition in India, reservation on the basis of domicile or residence within a State for admissions to universities of national importance would be highly discriminatory and utterly perverse.

* Student, BA LLB (Hons.), National University of Study and Research in Law.

[1] Halsbury’s Laws of England (Fourth edn.), Vol. 8, para 421.

[2] (1984) 3 SCC 654

[3] (1955) 1 SCR 1215

[4] Government of India, Ministry of Human Resource Development Department of Higher Education 2013, All India Survey on Higher Education.

[5] (1955) 1 SCR 1215

[6] (1971) 2 SCC 22

[7] Nidamarti Maheshkumar v. State of Maharashtra, (1986) 2 SCC 534

[8] (1971) 1 SCC 38

[9] (1973) 1 SCC 420 

[10] (1980) 2 SCC 768

[11] Id., p. 787

[12] Constitution of India, Articles 256, 257 and 258.

[13] Halsbury’s Laws of England (Fourth edn.),Vol. 8.

[14] (1984) 3 SCC 654 at p. 668

[15] Saurabh Chaudri v. Union of India, (2003) 11 SCC 146

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