The Supreme Court (SC) of India on Thursday observed that merit cannot be reduced to narrow definitions of performance in an open competitive examination which only provided formal equality of opportunity, while upholding the 27 percent reservation for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in All India Quota (AIQ) seats in NEET for UG and PG medical courses.
The bench consisting Justices DY Chandrachud and AS Bopanna said that the competitive exams did not reflect economic and social advantage which is accrued to some classes.
The SC observed, “Articles 15(4) and 15 (5) are not an exception to Article 15 (1), which itself sets out the principle of substantive equality (including the recognition of existing inequalities). Thus, Articles 15 (4) and 15 (5) become a restatement of a particular facet of the rule of substantive equality that has been set out in Article 15 (1)”.
“Competitive examinations assess basic current competency to allocate educational resources but are not reflective of excellence, capabilities and potential of an individual which are also shaped by lived experiences, subsequent training and individual character. Crucially, open competitive examinations do not reflect the social, economic and cultural advantage that accrues to certain classes and contributes to their success in such examinations”, the judgment further read.
The apex court’s verdict came following a petition challenging the reservation for OBC and Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) introduced by the Central government in the AIQ seats in State government and medical institutions.
Earlier on January 7, the SC had upheld the reservation of 27 percent for OBCs in AIQ seats via a short order. It had however not given detailed reasons behind the judgment, which were given yesterday.
The verdict said that the scheme of AIQ was devised to allot in State-run medical institutions.
It stated, “The Union Government was not required to seek the permission of this Court before providing reservation in AIQ seats. Therefore, providing reservation in the AIQ seats is a policy decision of the Government, which will be subject to the contours of judicial review similar to every reservation policy”.
The court further held that high scores in an examination are not a proxy for merit, while speaking on the concept of merit which was put forward as an argument against reservation.
The Bench observed, “Merit should be socially contextualized and reconceptualized as an instrument that advances social goods like equality that we as a society value. In such a context, reservation is not at odds with merit but furthers its distributive consequences”.
However, the SC also said that the validity of the criteria for determining EWS quota would be heard at length later in March this year.
"For EWS, we have said that argument of petitioners in validity of EWS was not limited to its share in AIQ but also on the basis criteria. Thus, it needs to be heard in detail," the Court said.
Meanwhile, the admissions to the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) postgraduate courses for the year 2021 will be held according to the existing reservation of 27 percent for OBCs and 10 percent for EWS.
The SC reasoned, “Any change in the eligibility status for reservation at this stage would have caused confusion and led to possible litigation challenging such a change. This would have only caused further delay. We are still in the midst of the pandemic and any delay in the recruitment of doctors would impact the ability to manage the pandemic”.
"Hence, it is necessary to avoid any further delays in the admission process and allow counselling to begin immediately. As a result, we allow the implementation of EWS reservation in AIQ seats in NEET UG and PG seats for the academic year of 2021-2022," the top court added.
Noting that the notification dated July 29, 2021, was issued much ahead of the exams conducted and the counseling process began, the SC ruled, “It cannot be said that the rules for the game were set when the registrations closed on 15 March 2021 as has been urged on behalf of the petitioners”.