By K Raveendran
The first major indication of the Supreme Court thinking on the reservation issue was available in the apex court’s judgment in the Maratha reservation case of 2021, although the substantive issue raised in that plea was different from the court’s latest stand in the 10 percent quota for economically weaker sections.
A constitutional bench of the Supreme Court struck down the Uddhav Thackeray-led Maharashtra government’s controversial Maratha quota in excess of the long-established 50 percent ceiling as unconstitutional as it found no exceptional circumstances to breach the ceiling. The court also rejected the amendment brought about by the state government to declare Marathas as a socially and economically as a backward class on the ground that it violates the principles of equality. The bench held that there was no need to revisit the 50 percent ceiling limit on reservation laid down by the 9-judge bench decision in the Indira Sawhney case. Both the Maharashtra government and the Centre had pressed for a reconsideration of the verdict in that landmark case.
The 1992 Indira Sawhney case had a nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court a ‘Lakshman rekha’ of 50 percent in jobs and education at 50 percent, except in ‘extraordinary circumstances’. That position now stands changed.
Though the Maratha reservation judgment did not delve deep into the need to change the reservation issue, the court had indicated during the course of hearing that it may be time for all reservations to go, except those on the basis of economic backwardness. The same sentiment has been expressed in more concrete terms in the latest case relating to 10 percent quota for economically weaker sections, which the court said did not breach the basic structure of the Constitution.
Justice JB Pardiwala, one of the five judges in the case that upheld the EWS quota by a 3-2 majority, called for a second look at the quota policy as a shole and said continuance of reservation for people who have moved ahead should be brought to an end. “The ways to determine backward classes need a re-look so that ways are relevant in today’s time. Reservation should not continue for an indefinite time so that it becomes a vested interest,” he said.
Quota is one of most abused instruments of public policy as political parties seek to pander to the vote banks by providing reservations in education and employment, with the result that this seriously affects the opportunities available to the general public, irrespective of the economic status of candidates belonging to the non-reserved categories. Not just that, every new addition in the reservation eligibility is a threat to the existing beneficiaries and this has led to serious conflicts among the affected parties.
There is no denying the fact that SC-STs and other backward classes have been wronged against for centuries and they deserve all help to come up in life. But after a reasonably long time, which we are well past, a re-look at the quota system is perfectly in order to see if the handholding is actually serving its original purpose of empowering these sections to stand up to competition, or is it stunting their potential for growth and development. When the country has celebrated 75 years of Independence, it may be time to consider the efficacy of the policy followed so far, Justice Pardiwala suggested.
Unfortunately, quotas have increasingly been considered as a privilege and entitlement that can be inherited. This negates the very purpose of providing reservation. If the arrangement does not lift the beneficiaries to a level they can match the rest in terms of competence and calibre, there is no case for continuing such benefit. It would be a travesty of justice if the grandchildren of an IAS officer, who got into service on the basis of reservation, should also get the same preferential treatment when they compete with the rest.
Reservation has been demanded not just for initial access to opportunities, but as a guarantee of preferred treatment for life. Having enjoyed the benefits of coveted jobs or positions, there have been numerous cases where the beneficiaries demand the same protection in the matter of promotions as well. There have been several judgments to the effect that employees belonging to the reservation categories cannot demand promotion as a matter of right and that it is left to the discretion of the government. But the politicians continue to back such demands in their desperation to retain vote banks. (IPA Service)