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Supreme Court questions ₹8 lakh income limit for EWS quota

The court was hearing a batch of petitions filed by NEET aspirants challenging a July 29 notification of the Centre announcing 27% quota to OBCs and 10% reservation to EWS in the all India quota category. Picture shows candidates at a NEET centre in Coimbatore.   | Photo Credit: M. Periasamy

The Supreme Court on Thursday asked the government to explain how it zeroed in on the figure of ‘₹8 lakh’ as the annual income criterion to identify Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) among forward classes of society for grant of 10% reservation in medical admissions under the all India quota (AIQ).

The Supreme Court’s query is significant as the One Hundred and Third Constitutional Amendment of 2019, which introduced the 10% EWS quota, is itself under challenge before a larger Bench. The amendment is under question for making economic criterion as the sole ground for grant of reservation benefits.

The court was hearing a batch of petitions filed by NEET aspirants challenging a July 29 notification of the Centre announcing 27% quota to OBCs and 10% reservation to EWS in the all India quota category.

The three-judge Bench led by Justice D.Y. Chandrachud did not agree with the suggestion from Additional Solicitor General K.M. Natraj, appearing for the government, to leave the “larger” issue of what led to income criterion of ₹8 lakh for the Constitution Bench. Mr. Natraj said the three-judge Bench should confine itself to the limited problem of whether or not to stay the July 29 notification.

“What is being referred to a larger Bench is the validity of the 103rd Constitution Amendment, we are here confronted with the implementation of that Amendment… No, no Mr. Natraj, you have to tell us what exercise was done before ₹8 lakh was decided as the cut-off,” Justice Chandrachud said firmly.

The Bench, also comprising Justices Vikram Nath and B.V. Nagarathna, asked the Centre to file an affidavit explaining the “basis” on which ₹8 lakh was arrived at as the economic cut-off to be applied uniformly across the country to identify beneficiaries for reservation under the EWS quota.

“Tell us what is the basis of ₹8 lakh… You can’t just say it is a matter of policy… What is the indicia of backwardness for EWS which has been applied and what exercise has been done for arriving at this by the government,” Justice Chandrachud asked the government side.

Mr. Natraj responded that the Union Cabinet had decided on the ₹8 lakh criterion “with proper notings and everything”.

“But everything has to be approved by the Cabinet. That is the Rules of Business. We are on something more fundamental… like what was the study done? You have to demonstrate what is the data before you, who carried out the study, what were the contemporaneous statistics which the government had borne in mind while deciding on ₹8 lakh as cut-off to be applied for EWS quota uniformly…” Justice Chandrachud said.

The Bench said even the 103rd Amendment had said “each State will define economic backwardness with reference to income”. The court said it had been left to each State.

“Can you say ₹8 lakh everywhere qualifies as EWS or is there a need to have a more nuanced analysis to EWS of having different yardsticks to different parts of the country based on cost of living, HRA, etc,” Justice Chandrachud asked the government.

Mr. Natraj conceded that economic parameters could change even within a single State. Earning capacity might differ from town to town within a State.

“Therefore we may have to go on broad probabilities considering the national cost of living. That is one of the index,” Mr. Natraj reasoned.

“Well, that is not justice,” Justice Nath exclaimed.

“Have you done any exercise? Have you checked the GDP per capita for every State?’ Justice Chandrachud asked.

The court asked whether the government, without application of mind, had simply decided to extend the ‘creamy layer’ cap of ₹8 lakh for Other Backward Classes (OBC) to the EWS quota also.

Justice Chandrachud said the creamy layer concept devised to exclude affluent OBCs from quota benefits could not be employed to identify EWS in order to grant them reservation sops.

“The concept of the creamy layer is exclusion... The concept is used to exclude people who have become so economically advanced among our socially and educationally backward citizens that by reason of their economic advancement alone the indicia of backwardness is obliterated… On the other hand, the case of EWS is completely different. We are not looking at the obliteration of backwardness at all here. The assumption of the 103rd Amendment is that if you are economically weak, your weakness itself poses a danger to your advancement. You may not have the money for resources like books, study, tuition, etc,” Justice Chandrachud explained.

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Printable version | Dec 3, 2021 7:57:16 PM |

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