Supreme Court: A 3-judge bench of SA Bobde, CJ and R. Subhash Reddy and BR Gavai, JJ has referred to a 5-judge Constitution Bench pleas challenging the Constitution (One Hundred and Third Amendment) Act, 2019 which provides for grant of 10% quota to Economically Weaker Sections (EWSs) in jobs and admissions in the general category. The bench said that a larger bench will decide the pleas filed by 35 petitioners challenging Centre’s decision.
“for the purpose of deciding any case involving a substantial question of law as to interpretation of the Constitution it is to be heard by a Bench of five Judges.”
By virtue of Article 15(6) of the Constitution, States are empowered to make a special provision for the advancement of any economically weaker sections of citizens other than the classes mentioned in clauses (4) and (5) and to make a special provision relating to their admission to educational institutions including private educational institutions, whether aided or unaided by the State, other than the minority educational institutions referred to in clause (1) of Article 30, in addition to existing reservations and subject to a maximum of ten per cent of the total seats in each category. Similarly, Article 16(6) empowers the State to make any provision for the reservation of appointments or posts in favour of any economically weaker sections of citizens other than the classes mentioned in clause (4), in addition to the existing reservation and subject to a maximum of ten per cent of the posts in each category.
It is the case of the petitioners Janhit Abhiyan, an NGO, that the impugned amendments violate the basic structure of the Constitution mainly on the ground that the existing provisions of the Constitution empower to provide affirmative action only in favour of socially backward classes. It is for the first time that by the impugned amendments in the Constitution itself the new clauses are incorporated enabling the State to provide affirmative action by way of reservation to the extent of 10% in educational institutions and for appointment in services to economically weaker sections of society. The Petitioners have argued that the economic criteria alone cannot be the basis to determine backwardness as per the 9-Judge Bench judgment of this Court in the case of Indira Sawhney v. Union of India, (1992) 3 SCC 217. It is also the case of the petitioners that exceeding the ceiling cap of 50% is also in violation of the very same judgment of this Court.The quota will be over and above the existing 50 per cent reservation to Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes (OBCs).
It has further been argued that by virtue of the impugned amendments, very Constitution is amended by inserting new clauses in Articles 15 and 16 thereof, which empower the State to make reservations by way of affirmative action to the extent of 10% to economically weaker sections
“the very amendments run contrary to the constitutional scheme, and no segment of available seats/posts can be reserved, only on the basis of economic criterion.”
After considering the submissions of the petitioner, the Court said that such questions do constitute substantial questions of law to be considered by a Bench of five Judges. It is clear from the language of Article 145(3) of the Constitution and Order XXXVIII Rule 1(1) of the Supreme Court Rules, 2013, the matters which involve substantial questions of law as to interpretation of constitutional provisions they are required to be heard a Bench of five Judges.
“Whether the impugned Amendment Act violates basic structure of the Constitution, by applying the tests of ‘width’ and ‘identity’ with reference to equality provisions of the Constitution, is a matter which constitutes substantial question of law within the meaning of the provisions as referred above.”
The Court also took note of the submission of the Union of India that though ordinarily 50% is the rule but same will not prevent to amend the Constitution itself in view of the existing special circumstances to uplift the members of the society belonging to economically weaker sections. The Court noticed that even such questions also constitute as substantial questions of law to be examined by a Bench of five Judges as per Article 145(3) of the Constitution read with Order XXXVIII Rule 1(1) of the Supreme Court of Rules, 2013.
[Janhit Abhiyan v. Union of India, 2020 SCC OnLine SC 624 , decided on 05.08.2020]