Supreme Court upholds validity of OBC quota in NEET admissions

Reservation not at odds with merit, says top court

Updated - January 21, 2022 07:12 am IST

Published - January 20, 2022 01:28 pm IST - NEW DELHI

A view of Supreme Court in New Delhi. File photo

A view of Supreme Court in New Delhi. File photo

The Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the constitutional validity of quota for Other Backward Classes candidates in National Eligibility cum Entrance Test’s (NEET) All India Quota seats for undergraduate and postgraduate medical and dental courses,noting that “reservation is not at odds with merit” in open competitive examinations.

“If open examinations present equality of opportunity to candidates to compete, reservations ensure that the opportunities are distributed in such a way that backward classes are equally able to benefit from such opportunities which typically evade them because of structural barriers. This is the only manner in which merit can be a democratising force that equalises inherited disadvantages and privileges. Otherwise claims of individual merit are nothing but tools of obscuring inheritances that underlie achievements,” a Bench of Justices D.Y. Chandrachud and A.S. Bopanna observed in a 106-page judgment.

The court said an open competitive exam only ensures formal equality and does not end widespread ingrained inequalities in the availability of and access to educational facilities to certain classes of people, including the Other Backward Classes (OBC).

“The privileges that accrue to forward classes are not limited to having access to quality schooling and access to tutorials and coaching centres to prepare for a competitive examination but also includes their social networks and cultural capital (communication skills, accent, books or academic accomplishments) that they inherit from their family,” Justice Chandrachud observed.

The cultural capital ensures that a child from the forward classes is trained unconsciously by the familial environment to take up higher education or high posts commensurate with their family‘s standing. This works to the disadvantage of individuals from social backward classes who are first-generation learners and come from communities whose traditional occupations do not result in the transmission of necessary skills required to perform well in open examination.

Thus, merit is not solely of one’s own making. “The rhetoric surrounding merit obscures the way in which family, schooling, fortune and a gift of talents that the society currently values aids in one‘s advancement. Thus, the exclusionary standard of merit serves to denigrate the dignity of those who face barriers in their advancement which are not of their own making,” Justice Chandrachud explained.

The court said the “idea of merit” based on scores in an exam requires “deeper scrutiny”.

“While examinations are a necessary and convenient method of distributing educational opportunities, marks may not always be the best gauge of individual merit. If a high-scoring candidate does not use their talents to perform good actions, it would be difficult to call them meritorious merely because they scored high marks,” Justice Chandrachud reasoned.

The fortitude and resilience required to uplift oneself from conditions of deprivation are equally reflective of individual calibre and merit, the court said.

The apex court held it was the Centre’s prerogative to provide reservation in All India Quota (AIQ) seats. Granting reservation in the AIQ seats was a policy decision of the government, though subject to the contours of judicial review similar to every reservation policy;

The AIQ scheme was introduced in 1986 to provide domicile free admission to students from across the country. Till 2007, there was no reservation in the AIQ. The rationale behind the AIQ scheme was that selection of candidates for admission based on the all-India open examination would further merit since it would permit the selection of the best minds in the country.

The increase in the number of medical seats over the years has favoured the AIQ scheme. In the last six years, MBBS seats in the country were increased by 56% from 54,348 in 2014 to 84,649 seats in 2020. The number of postgraduate medical seats were increased by 80% from 30,191 seats in 2014 to 54,275 seats in 2020. States like Tamil Nadu have relentlessly worked to provide OBC quota in AIQ seats.

Justice Chandrachud said the power of the government to provide reservations under Article 15 (4) and (5) of the Constitution is not an “exception” to Article 15 (1), which enshrines the mandate that “the State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them”.

The court held that the power of the government to craft reservation for the OBC amplified the principle of “substantive equality” manifested through Article 15 (1).

The Parliament had backed the cause by enacting the Central Educational Institutions (Reservation in Admission) Act 2006 to enable 15% reservation for Scheduled Castes, 7.5% for the Scheduled Tribes, and 27% for the OBC category. The Constitution Bench in Ashoka Kumar Thakur v. Union of India had also upheld the constitutional validity of 27% reservation for the OBC category provided under the 2006 Act.

“Though the Act of 2006 would not be applicable to the seats earmarked for AIQ in State-run institutions since it would not fall within the definition of a Central educational institution under the Act, the Union, in view of Article 15(5), has the power to provide reservations for OBCs in the AIQ seats. It is not tenable for the States to provide reservation in the AIQ seats since these seats have been ‘surrendered‘ to the Centre,” Justice Chandrachud noted.

The judgment was based on petitions filed by doctors in August 2021 against a July 29, 2021, notification issued by the Directorate General of Health Services of the Ministry of Health implementing 27% and 10% reservation for OBC and Economically Weaker Sections (EWS), respectively, while filling up 15% undergraduate and 50% postgraduate AIQ seats under NEET.

The court further rejected the argument that Centre had issued the July 2021 notification, thus changing the “rules of the game” in the middle of the NEET admission process.

The Bench said the information bulletin of February 23, 2021 had specifically noted that the reservation applicable in NEET would be made known only during the counselling process.

“Thus, during the registration process which commenced on February 23, 2021 and ended on March 15, 2021, the candidates knew that the details relating to the seat matrix would only be available during the counselling process. The notification of July 29, 2021 was issued much before the exams were conducted and the counselling process was to begin,” the court concluded.

This part of the judgment concerning the OBC quota provided in the July 29, 2021 notification is final. Questions on the validity of the 10% quota for the EWS would be heard finally in the third week of March.

Meanwhile, on January 7, the court had allowed NEET counselling for 2021-22 admissions for AIQ seats to proceed in accordance with the July 29, 2021, notification in order to solely ensure there is no "dislocation" in medical admissions this year when the need for doctors is more due to the pandemic.

The ₹8 lakh gross annual family income limit criterion for identifying EWS, as originally notified by a January 2019 official memorandum and recommended for retention by the government-appointed former Finance Secretary Ajay Bhushan Pandey-led Expert Committee on December 31, 2021, would be implemented for the admission year 2021-2022. EOM

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