Judgment Summary: OBC Reservations in PG NEET 2021

OBC & EWS Reservation in Postgraduate Medical Admissions (PG NEET)

Judges: D.Y. Chandrachud CJI, A.S. Bopanna J

On January 20th 2022, Justices D.Y. Chandrachud and A.S. Bopanna delivered a Judgment explaining their earlier decision to permit the Union government to reserve seats for OBC candidates in the All India Quota (AIQ) for PG medical admissions. The Judgment restated the Supreme Court’s view that reservations are not detrimental to merit. 

The challenge to OBC reservations in PG NEET was raised by a group of doctors and PG candidates. The doctors were represented by Mr. Shyam Divan during the hearings. The Judgment, authored by Chandrachud J, gave reasons for rejecting both of Mr. Divan’s major arguments against OBC reservations in the AIQ. Chandrachud J hence upheld the constitutional validity of OBC reservations in 2021 PG NEET admissions and in all subsequent years as well. 

Reservation in PG Courses Are Not the Antithesis of Merit

Mr. Divan argued that it is in national interest to ensure that admissions to PG courses are only based on open competition. Specialized medical degrees should be given on the basis of merit, not reservations. 

The Judgment stated that reservations are not the opposite of merit. The Supreme Court had also endorsed this view in its early judgments in Balaji (1963) and T Devadasan (1964)—the Court interpreted the reservation clauses in Articles 15 and 16 to be exceptions to general equality. In N.M. Thomas (1976) and Indra Sawhney (1992), however, the Court developed a substantive equality perspective and rejected this view—reservations were interpreted as furthering equality. 

Chandrachud J quoted his own Judgment in BK Pavithra II (2019) to emphasize that the idea of merit must account for the social, cultural and economic advantages that contribute to the performance of forward castes and classes in examinations. When viewed in its social context, reservation is not at odds with merit but reconfigures it to advance equality. 

In addition to arguments of merit, Mr. Divan had also argued that OBC candidates for PG courses had already overcome their backwardness by receiving an undergraduate degree. Hence they were not entitled to reservations in PG admissions. The Judgment holds that this reasoning is flawed. A graduate qualification may provide social and economic mobility, but it does not create parity between forward and backward classes.

All Reservations in AIQ Permissible Except On Domicile Basis

The All India Quota was created in medical examinations by the Supreme Court in Pradeep Jain (1984) to provide a category of merit based seats free from increasing domicile reservations. Mr. Divan argued that the Supreme Court had intended for the AIQ to be free from all kinds of reservation. 

The Judgment repeated that merit must be reconfigured to accommodate the social context of caste backwardness and must further the social equality objective of reservation. Accordingly, it is incorrect to state that the AIQ was created to be free from all reservations. In Abhay Nath (2009), the Court had already clarified that only domicile reservations are barred in the AIQ. Chandrachud J accordingly held that OBC reservations were permissible in the AIQ. 

Further, Mr. Divan’s argument that the Supreme Court’s permission was needed to reserve in the AIQ because the AIQ was created by the Court was rejected. The Judgment stated that reservation was a policy matter. Necessitating the Court’s permission to make and implement a policy decision would amount to judicial overreach.