Supreme Court: In a big decision, the 5-judge Constitution bench of UU Lalit, CJ and Dinesh Maheshwari, S. Ravindra Bhat, Bela M Trivedi, JB Pardiwala, JJ has upheld the constitutional validity the Constitution (One Hundred and Third Amendment) Act, 2019, which provides for 10 percent reservation in appointments to posts under the State and in admissions to educational institutions to economically weaker sections (‘EWS’) of citizens. While Dinesh Maheshwari, Bela M Trivedi and JB Pardiwala, JJ wrote separate but concurrent opinions forming majority, S. Ravindra Bhat, J wrote the minority opinion for himself and U.U. Lalit, CJ.
This report covers the key takeaways from the majority ruling:
The 103rd Constitution Amendment
The Constitution (One Hundred and Third Amendment) Act, 2019 [103rd Constitution Amendment] , which came into effect on 14.01.2019, to amend Articles 15 and 16 of the Constitution of India by adding two new clauses viz., clause (6) to Article 15 with Explanation and clause (6) to Article 16; and thereby, empowering the State, inter alia, to provide for a maximum of 10% reservation for “the economically weaker sections” of citizens other than “the Scheduled Castes”, “the Scheduled Tribes” and the non-creamy layer of “the Other Backward Classes”. The amendment in question does not mandate but enables reservation for EWS and prescribes a ceiling limit of 10%.
Grounds for Challenge
- Making of special provisions including reservation in education and employment on the basis of economic criteria is entirely impermissible and offends the basic structure of the Constitution;
- In any case, exclusion of socially and educationally backward classes i.e., SCs, STs and non-creamy layer OBCs from the benefit of these special provisions for EWS is inexplicably discriminatory and destroys the basic structure of the Constitution; and
- Providing for 10% additional reservation directly breaches the 50% ceiling of reservations already settled by the decisions of the Supreme Court and hence, results in unacceptable abrogation of the Equality Code which, again, destroys the basic structure of the Constitution.
- The amendment in question, empowering the State to make special provisions for the economically weaker sections of citizens, is squarely within the four corners of the Constitution of India; rather making of such provisions is necessary to achieve the Preambular goal of ‘JUSTICE, social, economic and political’ in real sense of terms.
- There is no discrimination in relation to the classes that are excluded from EWS for the simple reason that the existing special provisions of affirmative action in their relation continue to remain in operation. As regards the breach of 50% ceiling of reservations, the contention is that the said ceiling is not inflexible or inviolable and in the context of the object sought to be achieved, 10% has been provided as the maximum by way of the enabling provision.
- Whether the 103rd Constitution Amendment can be said to breach the basic structure of the Constitution by permitting the State to make special provisions, including reservation, based on economic criteria?
- Whether the 103rd Constitution Amendment can be said to breach the basic structure of the Constitution by permitting the State to make special provisions in relation to admission to private unaided institutions?
- Whether the 103rd Constitution Amendment can be said to breach the basic structure of the Constitution in excluding the SEBCs/OBCs/SCs/STs from the scope of EWS reservation?
- The 103rd Constitution Amendment cannot be said to breach the basic structure of the Constitution by permitting the State to make special provisions, including reservation, based on economic criteria.
- The 103rd Constitution Amendment cannot be said to breach the basic structure of the Constitution by permitting the State to make special provisions in relation to admission to private unaided institutions.
- The 103rd Constitution Amendment cannot be said to breach the basic structure of the Constitution in excluding the SEBCs/OBCs/SCs/STs from the scope of EWS reservation.
Per Dinesh Maheshwari, J
- Reservation is an instrument of affirmative action by the State so as to ensure all-inclusive march towards the goals of an egalitarian society while counteracting inequalities; it is an instrument not only for inclusion of socially and educationally backward classes to the mainstream of society but, also for inclusion of any class or section so disadvantaged as to be answering the description of a weaker section. In this background, reservation structured singularly on economic criteria does not violate any essential feature of the Constitution of India and does not cause any damage to the basic structure of the Constitution of India.
- Exclusion of the classes covered by Articles 15(4), 15(5) and 16(4) from getting the benefit of reservation as economically weaker sections, being in the nature of balancing the requirements of non-discrimination and compensatory discrimination, does not violate Equality Code and does not in any manner cause damage to the basic structure of the Constitution of India.
- Reservation for economically weaker sections of citizens up to ten per cent. in addition to the existing reservations does not result in violation of any essential feature of the Constitution of India and does not cause any damage to the basic structure of the Constitution of India on account of breach of the ceiling limit of fifty per cent. because, that ceiling limit itself is not inflexible and in any case, applies only to the reservations envisaged by Articles 15(4), 15(5) and 16(4) of the Constitution of India.
Per Bela M. Trivedi, J
“The legislature understands and appreciates the needs of its own people and its laws are directed to the problems made manifest by experience, and its discriminations are based on adequate norms. Therefore, the constitutional amendment could not be struck down as discriminatory if the state of facts are reasonably conceived to justify it.”
The impugned amendment is required to be treated as an affirmative action on the part of the Parliament for the benefit and for the advancement of the economically weaker sections of the citizens as,
“The Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes and the backward class for whom the special provisions have already been provided in Article 15(4), 15(5) and 16(4) form a separate category as distinguished from the general or unreserved category. They cannot be treated at par with the citizens belonging to the general or unreserved category.”
On the time span of the reservation policy
The age-old caste system in India was responsible for the origination of the reservation system in the country, which was introduced to correct the historical injustice faced by the persons belonging to the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes and other backward classes, and to provide them a level playing field to compete with the persons belonging to the forward classes. However, at the end of seventy-five years of our independence, there is a need to revisit the system of reservation in the larger interest of the society as a whole, as a step forward towards transformative constitutionalism.
“Can we not move towards an ideal envisaged by the framers of our Constitution to have an egalitarian, casteless and classless society? Though difficult, it is an achievable ideal. Our Constitution which is a living and organic document continuously shapes the lives of citizens in particular and societies in general.”
Noticeably, as per Article 334 of the Constitution, the provisions of the Constitution relating to the reservation of seats for the SCs and the STs in the House of the People and in the Legislative Assemblies of the States would cease to have effect on the expiration of a period of eighty years from the commencement of the Constitution. The representation of Anglo-Indian community in the House of the Parliament and in the Legislative Assemblies of the States by nomination, has already ceased by virtue of the 104th 24 Amendment w.e.f. 25.01.2020. Therefore, similar time limit if prescribed, for the special provisions in respect of the reservations and representations provided in Article 15 and Article 16 of the Constitution, it could be a way forward leading to an egalitarian, casteless and classless society.
Per JB Pardiwala, J
- In this country with a population of around 1.41 billion, the economic backwardness is not confined only to those who are covered by Article 15(4) or Article 16(4) of the Constitution. In a country where only a small percentage of the population is above the poverty line, to deny opportunities of higher education (which secures employment) and employment is to deny to those who are qualified and deserving what is or at least should be their due.
- There can be reservation for certain weaker sections other than the SCs/STs and socially and educationally backward classes. The impugned amendment is meant for weaker sections of the society who are economically weak and cannot afford to impart education to their children or are unable to secure employment in the services of the State.
- The ad hoc policies of the State directed towards achieving a larger, fundamental standard of equality, cannot by itself become fundamental. Fundamental would only be the principle and not the way these principles are sought to be realised. Such mechanisms which facilitate ‘equality of opportunity in public employment’ as guaranteed under Article 16 of the Constitution are ad hoc arrangements. They could be suitably modified with passage of time or even be done away with for a more suitable, convenient and efficient reservation policy, largely dependent on the State’s own understanding of the best way to pursue the constitutional ends.
- The longstanding development and the spread of education have resulted in tapering the gap between the classes to a considerable extent. As larger percentages of backward class members attain acceptable standards of education and employment, they should be removed from the backward categories so that the attention can be paid toward those classes which genuinely need help. In such circumstances, it is very much necessary to take into review the method of identification and the ways of determination of backward classes, and also, ascertain whether the criteria adopted or applied for the classification of backward is relevant for today’s conditions. The idea of Baba Saheb Ambedkar was to bring social harmony by introducing reservation for only ten years. However, it has continued past seven decades. Reservation should not continue for an indefinite period of time so as to become a vested interest.
[Janhit Abhiyan v. Union of India, 2022 SCC OnLine SC 1540, decided on 07.11.2022]
Appearances by: Mr. K.K. Venugopal, Attorney General for India, Mr. Tushar Mehta, Solicitor General of India, Ms. Meenakshi Arora, Mr. Sanjay Parikh, Prof. Ravi Verma Kumar, Mr. Salman Khurshid, Mr. P. Wilson, Dr. K. S. Chauhan, Mr. Gopal Sankaranarayanan, Mr. Mahesh Jethmalani, Mr. Niranjan Reddy, Ms. Vibha Makhija, senior advocates; and Prof (Dr) G. Mohan Gopal, Mr. Yadav Narender Singh, Mr. Shadan Farasat, Ms. Diya Kapur, Dr. M. P. Raju, Mr. Kaleeswaram Raj, Mr. Pratik R. Bombarde, Mr. Akash Kakade, Mr. Kanu Agrawal, Mr. V.K. Biju