CASE COMMENT – JANHIT ABHIYAN VS. UNION OF INDIA

Citation – MANU/SC/1449/2022

By – Krish Vikram, 1st Year Law Student, Symbiosis Law School Pune

FACTS

In the current situation, the government of India approved the 103rd Constitutional Amendment Act, 2019, which allowed 10% reservations to economically disadvantaged groups of society. It should also be highlighted that the constitution only allows for reservations based on social and educational backwardness. The amendment adds two clauses to the constitution, Article 15(6) and Article 16(6) in Articles 15 and 16, respectively. The amendment also included a provision requiring government institutes as well as private institutes (aided and unaided) to include this reservation clause. The lone exception was minority institutes, which were exempted by Article 30(1) of the Indian Constitution.

The 10% reserve criteria were added in such a way that there will be no change in the pattern of existing seats in government employment or educational institutions, but there will be a 10% increase in existing seats. If an institute has 100 seats altogether, the seats will be raised to 110, with the additional 10 seats earmarked for economically disadvantaged sections. This sparked a heated constitutional discussion about whether the state can devise additional criteria for reserving individuals from economically disadvantaged groups. This prompted the Supreme Court to hear 20-odd petitions challenging the constitutional amendment’s legality.

ISSUES RAISED

The following were the issues raised:

  • Is it possible to make a reservation exclusively on the basis of economic criteria?
  • Whether other socially impoverished sections (such as Schedule Casts, Schedule Tribes, and Socially and Educationally Backward sections) should be excluded from the reservation of the Economically Weaker Section?
  • Can the reservation under the Economically Weaker segment go beyond the 50% limit set in Indira Sweney’s 1992 decision?
  • Can the Constitutional Amendment compel private aided or private unaided institutes to admit students from economically disadvantaged groups?

CONTENTION OF PARTIES

The Petitioner’s stance on the 103rd amendment reflects several crucial perspectives:

  • Contradiction to Reservation Principles: The contention that the amendment extends reservations to a demographic that hasn’t historically faced marginalization challenges the fundamental principles of affirmative action. The argument rests on the belief that reservations should primarily address historical social injustice and not solely economic criteria. This viewpoint aligns with judgments like the Indra Sawhney case and the Mandal Commission report, which emphasized the multifaceted nature of reservations beyond just economic status.
  • Violation of 50% Ceiling: There’s a strong assertion that altering the 50% ceiling for reservations should only occur in exceptional circumstances, which were deemed absent in the case of the 103rd amendment. This viewpoint contends that maintaining the 50% limit is crucial to preserving the original intent of reservations without diluting opportunities for other sections of society.
  • Purpose of Reservations: The argument extends to suggest that even if backward classes attain equality with forward classes, economic disparities and poverty might persist. This perspective questions whether the amendment addresses the core objectives of reservations, especially as envisioned by B.R. Ambedkar. It underscores the concern that reservations may lose their essence if not primarily addressing historical social injustices.
  • Article 14 Challenge: The exclusion of SC/ST and SEBC from the new provisions of reservations within the general caste is seen as a violation of Article 14 (Right to equality) and the basic structure of the Indian Constitution. This perspective highlights the importance of equal treatment and opportunities for all citizens, regardless of caste or social background.
  • EWS Reservation Critique: The introduction of Economic Weaker Sections (EWS) reservation is criticized for potentially perpetuating caste divisions within a society aiming for a caste-free existence. The vertical reservation introduced within an existing reservation system is viewed as contradictory to the nation’s vision of a casteless society, as stated in the preamble of the Indian Constitution.

In essence, these perspectives from the petitioner’s side reflect concerns regarding the amendment’s alignment with constitutional principles, its deviation from the original intent of reservations, and its potential to perpetuate social stratification rather than addressing historical injustices.

Arguments presented by the Respondents:

  • Class-Based Focus of Reservations: The respondents emphasize that the core of reservation policy centers on uplifting economically disadvantaged classes rather than perpetuating caste-based divisions. They argue that the amendment’s intent to aid economically backward classes aligns with the fundamental principle of addressing economic disparities, thereby furthering the constitutional vision of a society free from caste-based inequalities. This emphasis on economic criteria is seen as a progressive step in ensuring equitable opportunities.
  • Strengthening Constitutional Principles: The Attorney General’s stance underscores that the amendment doesn’t weaken but reinforces the fundamental tenets of the constitution. Respondents advocate for a dynamic interpretation of the constitution, citing Articles 38 and 46 of the Directive Principles of State Policy. These articles obligate the state to proactively work toward eradicating various inequalities, supporting the argument that the amendment aligns with these constitutional aspirations for societal justice.
  • Economic Criteria in Classification: Drawing from legal precedents, the respondents argue that courts have recognized poverty as a marker of backwardness in decisions like M.R. Balaji, R Chitralekha v. State of Mysore, and Vasanth Kumar. This history supports the consideration of economic factors in classifying backwardness, thereby justifying the emphasis on economic criteria in the amendment’s provisions.
  • Justification for EWS Reservation: Regarding the 10% ceiling for EWS reservations, the respondents assert that this addition doesn’t encroach upon the rights of existing reserved categories. They argue that the exclusion of certain groups like SCs, STs, and non-creamy layer OBCs is justified as these groups already benefit from specific reservation provisions. The 10% quota for economically weaker sections is seen as an addition rather than a substitution, aiming to address economic disparities beyond caste considerations.
  • Exceeding the 50% Reservation Limit: Respondents argue that while exceeding the 50% reservation limit is generally discouraged, in exceptional circumstances, such deviations can be warranted. They contend that the amendment strives for substantive equality by responding to societal demands, extending reservation benefits to economically weaker sections. The focus remains on ensuring fair opportunities while acknowledging the complexities of social and economic disparities.

In sum, the respondents’ arguments revolve around the amendment’s alignment with constitutional principles, emphasizing economic criteria in addressing backwardness, and the aim to achieve substantive equality by extending reservation benefits to economically disadvantaged sections without compromising the interests of existing reserved categories.

RATIONALE

The Supreme Court’s ruling affirming the constitutionality of the 103rd Amendment Act in 2019, enabling reservations for Economically Weaker Sections (EWS), marked a significant decision by a 3:2 majority on November 7, 2022. Justice Dinesh Maheshwari, among others, emphasized that the addition of a 10% quota for EWS did not breach any essential feature of the Constitution. He argued that the 50% ceiling limit for reservations, specified in Articles 15(4), 15(5), and 16(4) of the Indian Constitution, isn’t rigid and isn’t applicable to EWS reservations.

Justice Bela M. Trivedi echoed this sentiment by highlighting that recognizing economically disadvantaged individuals as a distinct class doesn’t disrupt the constitutional framework. Similarly, Justice Pardiwala supported the idea that economic arguments can be valid grounds for affirmative action, aligning with the principle of substantive equality. However, Justice Bhat dissented strongly, challenging the majority’s stance on considering “economic factors” as permissible grounds for Article 15 regarding reservations in public employment. He referred to the Indra Sawhney case, which emphasized that reservations shouldn’t solely be based on economic considerations. Despite this, the Supreme Court’s ruling didn’t explicitly preclude reservations based on economic factors.

This judgment highlights a divergence in perspectives within the Supreme Court regarding the inclusion of economic criteria in reservation policies. While the majority supported the inclusion of EWS reservations, considering the flexible nature of the 50% ceiling and the recognition of economic disparity as a valid category, the dissenting opinion stressed the importance of not diluting the core intent of reservations as based on social backwardness rather than purely economic status. The ruling leaves room for ongoing debates and potential future clarifications on the parameters of reservation policies vis-à-vis economic considerations within the Indian constitutional framework.

DEFECTS IN THE LAW

The exclusion of Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs), Other Backward Classes (OBCs), and Socially and Economically Backward Classes (SEBCs) from the 10% reservation introduced by the 103rd amendment is seen as a violation of the equality principles inherent in the constitution. This exclusion is viewed as perpetuating discrimination against historically disadvantaged communities. The restriction of these communities to compete only within their allocated reservation quotas is considered arbitrary and further marginalizing.

While there’s consensus on providing reservation based solely on economic criteria through Article 15, some argue that through a flexible or dynamic interpretation, economically weaker sections could be considered as part of the backward class. This interpretation acknowledges that economic deprivation can trap individuals in a cycle of poverty, hindering their access to education and opportunities.

However, dissenting judges argue that such a reservation solely based on economic criteria conflicts with Article 16, which guarantees equality of opportunity in employment. They contend that Article 16 aims to provide representation specifically to historically disadvantaged and weaker sections of society. Therefore, providing reservation solely based on economic criteria would contradict the constitutional ethos, which seeks to ensure equal representation for all societal classes based on historical injustices and social backwardness, rather than purely economic status.

INFERENCE

The 103rd Amendment Act of 2019 in India marked a significant stride towards addressing socio-economic disparities by introducing reservation benefits for the economically disadvantaged among the general category. This amendment, which set aside 10% of government jobs and educational seats for this group, aimed to mitigate the barriers faced by those lacking economic advantage. By breaking the traditional reservation structure based on caste and instead focusing on economic criteria, the amendment aimed to tackle educational and economic inequality. It intended to provide opportunities for those who were previously unable to compete on an equal footing due to financial limitations.

One perspective sees this move as a step towards a more egalitarian society, fostering inclusivity irrespective of economic background. It was seen as a potential catalyst in creating a more level playing field, enabling access to education and employment for individuals from economically weaker backgrounds. However, some concerns were raised regarding the perpetuation of the reservation system. Critics worried that while this amendment addressed economic disparities, it might not entirely eliminate the need for reservations in society. The fear was that the practice of reservations could become a perpetual mechanism without a clear endpoint, thereby continuing to allocate opportunities based on specific criteria rather than solely on merit.

Ultimately, While the amendment sought to enable the upliftment of economically disadvantaged sections, debates persist on the long-term implications of this amendment on the country’s social and economic landscape. Historically, reservations were intended to provide benefits to backward classes that endure discrimination in order to bring them up to pace with the forward classes, but even if the backward classes were brought up to par with the front classes, individuals would still live in poverty. The Supreme Court’s decision to sustain 10% reservations abolished all constraints and opened the door to constitutional interpretation. With this ruling in Janhit Abhiyan v. Union of India, the Supreme Court of India has gone a little beyond its previous rulings, overturning the ceiling limit and allowing for a more open interpretation, stating that adding 10% to the existing reservations does not violate any fundamental principle of the Constitution and does not harm the fundamental structure of the Indian Constitution because the ceiling limit of 50% has been exceeded. However, it will be interesting to see how the public reacts and how this ruling is utilized as a benchmark for future projects.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  1. Yagya Agarwal, Janhit Abhiyan vs Union of India 2022 (Economical Weaker Section Reservation Judgment), 3 Jus Corpus L.J. 28 (2023).
  2. Mohd Hashim, Changing Nature of Reservation Policy: Janhit Abhiyan v Union of India, 3 Jus Corpus L.J. 123 (2023).
  3. Aditi Sharma & Tanvi Garg, Reservation for EWS: A Move Anti or Pro Discrimination?, 20 Supremo Amicus 40 (2020).
  4. Banshita Sahoo & Komal Singh, Constitutional Validity of the 103rd Constitutional Amendment Act 2019, 3 Jus Corpus L.J. 329 (2023).
  5. Sreelakshmi K. S., Recent Judgements Upholding Sociological Jurisprudence, 3 INDIAN J. INTEGRATED Rsch. L. 1 (2023).
  6. Sana R. Goswami, 103rd Amendment of the Constitution of India: Pro-Equality or Anti-Equality Code?, 5 INDIAN J.L. & LEGAL Rsch. 1 (2023).
  7. G. Manoj, Affirmative Actions in India and United States: A Challenge to Reservation Policy in India, 5 INDIAN J.L. & LEGAL Rsch. 1 (2023).
  8. Rudra Chandran, ‘These Seats Are Reserved: Caste, Quotas and the Constitution of India’, 7 CALJ 96 (2023).

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