A two-judge bench consisting of Justices D.Y. Chandrachud and B.V. Nagarathna heard three writ petitions challenging reservations of the All India Quota (AIQ) seats in medical postgraduate courses through the National Eligibility Entrance Test (NEET) examination.
In 1986, the Supreme Court held that all seats in medical colleges could not be reserved for students domiciled in that State.The AIQ was created to provide some merit-based seats to medical students, irrespective of which state they are domiciled in. It was originally held that the Government has no obligation to reserve seats under the AIQ scheme. Then, in 2006, the Supreme Court held that 22.5% reservation (15% for Scheduled Castes and 7.5% for Scheduled Tribes) should be included in AIQ.
On July 19th 2021, the Union notified that it will reserve 27% AIQ seats for Other Backward Classes (OBC) students and 10% AIQ seats for Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) students.
The Union had earlier introduced EWS as a new reservation category in Article 15(6) through the Constitution (One Hundred and Third Amendment) Act, 2019. Petitions challenging the constitutionality of this amendment are currently pending before a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court.
The petitioners in the AIQ-NEET cases are doctors and students who claim that the Union’s notification amounts to ‘reverse discrimination’ against general category applicants. They argue that the AIQ reservation scheme for medical students crosses the 50% cap set by the Supreme Court. Hence, it violates Articles 14,16 and 19 of the Constitution.
Union to File Reply in Two Weeks
The Bench ordered the Union to file their reply to the petitions. Additional Solicitor General (ASG) K.M. Nataraj, appearing for the Union, asked for four weeks time to do so.
Senior Advocate Shyam Divan, appearing for Madhura Kavishwar, objected. He stated that NEET results would be out in two weeks. If the Union takes four weeks to file their reply, the Court would have to consider granting interim relief to the petitioners in the meantime.
The bench granted the Union two weeks to file its reply. The petitions will be heard on October 7th, 2021.
50% Cap on Reservation
Mr. Divan argued that the Court had previously held reservation requirements do not apply to the All India Quota. His petition states that the AIQ category was intended to ‘overcome the difficulty of...high percentage of reservation’.
Eight Lakhs Benchmark For EWS
Article 15(6) of the Constitution was introduced by the 103rd Amendment. It allowed the Union to provide reservation in education for EWS candidates. According to the provision, EWS is to be decided on the basis of family income and other economic factors.
Chandrachud J pointed out that the challenges to the Amendment are still pending before a five-judge bench. Until the five-judge bench decides otherwise, Article 15(6) must be treated as valid.
Senior Advocate Arvind Datar, appearing for Dr. Neil Aurelio Nunes, stated that the petitioners will not argue against the constitutionality of EWS reservation. However, he argued that the Union’s notification setting annual income of Rs. eight lakhs as the benchmark for EWS was arbitrary. He pointed out that the minimum taxable annual income in India was Rs. Five Lakhs. GDP indicators showed that the average annual income in India was Rs. 1.7 Lakhs. The Union would have to show what benchmark it had compared EWS against to arrive at the eight lakhs figure.
Nagarathna J stated that Rs. Eight lakhs as benchmark for EWS was a question of implementation of Art. 15(6) and not its validity. So, the Bench could address it.
EWS Reservation- Horizontal or Vertical?
Mr. Datar further stated that the Bench must decide whether EWS reservation should operate horizontally or vertically. If EWS is to operate horizontally, it would mean that a percentage of seats within each SC/ST/OBC category is reserved for EWS candidates. If it operates vertically, EWS reservation would be claimed as a separate category. Chandrachud J stated that Article 15(6)(b) indicates the Union’s intention to treat it as a standalone vertical.
Mr. Datar argued that backward classes can currently claim seats reserved for SC/ST/OBCs. Treating EWS as a standalone vertical will enable them to simultaneously claim general category seats under the AIQ. He called this a ‘double danger’. He stated that very few seats would be left for general category students.
SEBCs Not Properly Identified
Mr. Shrirang Choudhary, appearing for Dr. Apruv Satish Gupta, argued that the Constitution (One Hundred and Second) Amendment Act, 2018 took away the power to identify Socially and Economically Backward Classes (SEBC) from the State governments. It gave the President the power to notify SEBC lists instead. He stated that no such list has been notified even three years after the 2018 Amendment. He argued that there was no reason for providing reservation on the basis of an outdated list.
Chandrachud J admitted Mr. Choudhary’s petition, and asked him to restate his arguments on the next date of hearing.