Outcome of NEET Reservation Case – UPSC GS2

Details of Case:
  • The case was laid before the Supreme Court to look into the issues around the implementation of Other Backward Classes (OBC) and economically weaker sections (EWS) quotas in the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET)-All India Quota (AIQ) admissions to medical colleges.
  • All India Quota refers to a judicially created category where 15% of undergraduate seats and 50% of post-graduate seats are filled on a domicile-free, all-India basis.
  • The Government recently decided to extend the existing SC and ST reservations within the AIQ category to provide for OBC reservations as well.
  • Writ petitions were filed related to:
    • Implementation of OBC reservation would impact professional merit and is discriminatory against general category candidates.
    • The notification of EWS reservation as the hearings on the 103rd Constitutional Amendment Act were pending.
    • To justify ₹8 lakh as the income limit for EWS reservations.
Supreme Court’s View:
  • The Court took this as an opportunity to address the issues of merit and reservations.
  • Critics of affirmative action have argued that reservations violate merit. The defenders of reservation argue that affirmative action serve goals of social representation.
  • The Court’s judgement takes a fresh stand in this regard.
  • The Court reaffirmed the principle of substantive equality that underlies the constitutional promise of equality of opportunity, rather than formal equality.
  • Relying on the debates in the Constituent Assembly, the Court reaffirms that the intent of the framers was to provide a remedy to the structural barriers that prevented the realisation of equality of opportunity.
  • The Court gave the judgement based on previous landmark cases.
Landmark Cases and other views referred by the Supreme Court in the Judgement
  • Principle of substantive equality:
    • State of Kerala vs N.M. Thomas, K.C. Vasanth Kumar (1985), and Indra Sawhney vs Union of India (1992)
      • Reiterate that the provision of reservations in Article 16(4) of the Constitution is not an exception but an extension of the principle of equality enunciated in Article 16(1).
      • Reservations are important to achieving the goal of equality of opportunity and status amongst all citizens.
    • Based on the above judgement the court held that, “Reservation is one of the measures that is employed to overcome the barriers. The individual difference may be due to privilege, or circumstances but it cannot be used to negate the role of reservation in remedying the structural disadvantage that certain groups suffer.”
  • The mechanisms through which social privileges work:
    • K.C. Vasanth Kumar vs State of Karnataka (1985)
      • The judge had criticised the purely economic understanding of claims for reservation, by emphasising the rigid nature of the socio-cultural institution of caste.
    • Marc Galanter’s insight: that the processes of resource accumulation impact the performance of candidates in examinations.
    • Based on the above views the Court’s order held that, “The cultural capital ensures that a child 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 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”.
  • Exposing social prejudices:
    • B.K. Pavitra vs State of Karnataka (2019)
      • Court held that, “the benchmark for the efficiency of administration is not some disembodied, abstract ideal measured by the performance of a qualified open category candidate. The efficiency of administration in the affairs of the Union or of a State must be defined in an inclusive sense, where diverse segments of society find representation as a true aspiration of governance by and for the people”.
    • Relying on the judgement the Court recognises that there is a need to rectify prejudicial stereotypes about the skills of persons belonging to weaker sections.
  • Examinations as a measure of merit:
    • Ashwini Deshpande’s study: Highlights a sharp difference between what examinations claim to measure, and what they actually do.
    • Satish Deshpande’s research:
      • Shows that “what examinations measure have an indirect link to the tasks the candidate is supposed to perform”.
      • He argues that the prestige of competitive entrance examinations and the unimpeachability of its evaluator standards are a manufactured construct.
      • He calls these examinations ‘traumatic bloodbaths’ that are administered to guard the social prestige of the professional class.
      • He concludes that if the examinations were to be less ruthless, their main social function of persuading ‘the vast majority of aspirants to consent to their exclusion’ would be prevented.
    • The judgment opines that exams can “only reflect the current competence of an individual but not the gamut of their potential, capabilities or excellence”.
    • The judgement focuses on the importance of individual character, experiences, and training.
Consequences of the Judgement:
  • The judgment has far-reaching consequences for judicial orders, public policy, and public discourse.
  • The claims of reverse discrimination by candidates from the general or unreserved category would have to be justified under the ideals of substantive equality.
  • This implies that a disparity in cut-off marks would not be interpreted in isolation of the structural inequalities that are continued by competitive examinations.
  • The judgement invites for a judicial review of the constitutionality of EWS reservations since it overlooks the role of cultural capital for general category EWS candidates and fixes the same income limits for ‘creamy layer’ OBC and EWS.
  • In the policy domain, the judgment opens the way for designing examinations that are free of linguistic, class, school boards, and regional bias.
  • The recognition of social privileges behind merit supports the demand for a caste census.
NOTE: Above judgements and research work can be used in various other topics / essays.
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