Supreme Court’s Verdict on EWS quota

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    In News 

    • By a majority of 3:2, a five-judge Bench of the Supreme Court has upheld the validity of the Constitution (103rd) Amendment, which came into effect in January 2019. 

    About 103rd Amendment 

    • The 103rd Amendment, passed by Parliament in 2019, had inserted Articles 15(6) and 16(6) in the Constitution to provide up to 10 per cent reservation to the economically weaker sections (EWS) among non-OBC and non-SC/ST sections of the population.
    •  In other words, the amendment introduced a quota for the poor among the so-called ‘forward castes’ or ‘general category’.
    • The quota is available in admissions to higher educational institutions, and in initial recruitment in central government jobs. 
      • The amendment also empowered state governments to provide reservation on the basis of economic backwardness.

    What basis was the quota challenged ?

    • Essentially, the challenge was based on the argument that the 103rd amendment violated the “basic structure” of the Constitution.
      • The Supreme Court introduced the doctrine of basic structure in the landmark Kesavananda Bharati case (1973), by which it ruled that certain aspects of the Constitution were inviolable, and could not be changed.
      • The primary argument in this case stemmed from the view that the special protections guaranteed to socially disadvantaged groups is part of the basic structure, and that the 103rd Amendment departs from this by promising special protections on the sole basis of economic status.

    Other highlighted issues 

    • Political and electoral compulsions: Due to political and electoral compulsions, successive governments, invariably on the eve of elections, have been tweaking the reservation policy
      • The introduction of a 10 per cent EWS quota could impinge on the opportunities available for Dalits and OBCs, suggesting that the move is politically fraught with the potential to polarise on caste lines. 
    • Exclusion : The Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and non-creamy layer Other Backward Classes were excluded from the newly inserted clauses of Article 15(4) and 16(4). 
      • since the bulk of the poorest people belong to SC/ST/OBC groups, their exclusion is not right
    • Breach of ceiling : The ceiling of 50 per cent reservation was breached and the individual rather than the group became the basis of backwardness. 
    • Favouring the general categories:  It has been argued that in several reservation matters, the courts have been more interested in protecting the interests of general categories.
      • As a matter of fact, the EWS reservation is for the erstwhile general candidates:
        • The Rs 8-lakh family income provision covers over 90 percent of our population.
    • Reluctant : EWS verdict underscores that judiciary has been a reluctant supporter of caste-based reservation.
    • Old Idea : The EWS quota is of a piece with the Centre’s attempt to fashion a new welfare architecture by reading class with caste.
      •  It has imbibed the spirit of creamy layer, formulated by the apex court in Indra Sawhney (1992) to exclude the economically better-off OBC candidates from the ambit of reservation, to explore differentiated quotas for the OBCs as well as religious minorities. 

    Recent Observations of Supreme Court 

    • Majority verdict has rejected a challenge against the amendment.
      • They have ruled that reservation based only on economic criteria does not violate the basic structure of the Constitution, and that the exclusion of classes covered in Article 15(4) and 16(4) — that is OBCs and SC/STs — in the 103rd amendment does not damage the basic structure.
      • They ruled that treating EWS as a separate class would be a reasonable classification, and that treating unequals equally would violate the principle of equality under the Constitution. 
        • 75 years after independence, it was time to revisit the system of reservation in the larger interest of society.
    • It has observed that the new reservation is in furtherance of the Preamble’s goal of achieving justice — social, economic and political. 
    • The majority was of the view that  exclusion  of SC/ST/OBC groups was inevitable for the true operation and effect of the new policy. 
      • If existing beneficiaries are not excluded, it would amount to excessive benefit and advantage. 
    • The majority also cited a number of earlier judgments on the 50 per cent ceiling 
      • It has been observed that the 50 per cent limit was for the benefit of general candidates and it causes no injustice to the reserved categories.
    • Judges who have dissented
      •  They have ruled that while reservation on economic criteria is per se not violative of the Constitution, excluding SC/ST/OBC from the purview of EWS is violative of basic structure. 
        • They have struck down Articles 15(6) and 16(6) for being discriminatory and violative of the equality code.

    Conclusion and Way Ahead 

    • The government should engage with the concerns flagged in the dissenting judgement and address the fears of Dalits as well as socially and educationally backward classes.
    •  The government also needs to work on improving the quality of educational institutions in general, which will limit the demand for reservations to get into the chosen few. 

    Mains Practice Question 

    [Q]Do you agree that the 103rd Amendment act violates the Basic Structure of the Constitution? Give reasons in support of your answer.