‘Exam grades are not the only determinant of aptitude or brilliance’: Supreme Court upholds the validity of OBC quota in NEET seats

THE Supreme Court bench comprising Justices D.Y. Chandrachud and  A.S. Bopanna, on Thursday, held that “special provisions are a method to ameliorate the structural inequalities that exist in the society, without which, true or factual equality will remain illusory”.

The court observed that Article 16 (4), Article 16 (1), Article 15 (4), Article 15 (5) work as a group to achieve “substantive equality” in the society. The judgment, authored by Justice D.Y.Chandrachud, in Neil Aurelio Nunes and Others v Union of India, upheld the reservation for Other Backward Classes, in All-India Quota category for UG and PG medical and dental courses as constitutionally valid.

According to the bench, the Constituent Assembly felt that there must be a provision (Article 16 (4)) that enables entry of those communities into administration since they were deprived of such access in the past and formal equality of opportunity would not suffice. The court also noted that the observations of the Constituent Assembly were limited to reservation in public posts because reservation in educational institutions was introduced through a subsequent constitutional amendment.

The court also observed that it cannot be argued that a competitive examination or entrance to a higher educational institution does not need a significant amount of hard work and devotion, but it is important to recognise that “merit” is not exclusively a product of one’s own efforts. The language around merit obscures the role that family, education, money, and a gift of abilities, all of which are valued in today’s society, play in one’s success, it said.

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Examination grades are not the only determinate of aptitude or brilliance; even if it is accepted for the purpose of argument that scores reflect excellence, it is not the only value deemed a social good. The distributive consequences of merit must be considered. As a result, how we evaluate merit should include whether it mitigates or entrenches inequities, the bench observed.

Deciding on the issue of whether reservation can be permitted in PG courses, the court observed that Article 15 (5) doesn’t make a distinction between UG and PG courses. The Constitution empowers the state to establish specific provisions for the advancement of socially and educationally disadvantaged groups seeking admission to UG and PG educational institutions, it said.

Holding the OBC reservations valid,  the court gave the following reasons for its decision:

  • Articles 15 (4) and 15 (5) are not an exception to Article 15 (1), which itself sets out the principle of substantive equality.

  • Merit cannot be reduced to narrow definitions of performance in an open competitive examination which only provides formal equality of opportunity.

  • High scores in an examination are not a proxy for merit.

  • Articles 15 (4) and 15 (5) employ group identification as a method through which substantive equality can be achieved.

  • The scheme of AIQ was devised to allot seats in State-run medical and dental institutions in which students from across the country could compete.

  • 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

  • Candidates while applying for NEET-PG were not provided any information on the distribution of seat matrix. Therefore, it cannot be said that “rules of the game” were set after the examination registration period ended.

The bench pronounced its decision upholding the constitutional validity of providing 27 per cent quota to Other Backward Classes (OBC) in NEET All India Quota (AIQ) seats for UG and PG medical and dental seats. The court pronounced a detailed order giving reasons for its January 7 judgment for allowing NEET counselling for 2021-22 admission for AIQ seats.

The bench passed the judgment based on the petitions filed by doctors in August 2021 against a July 29, 2021 notification implementing 27 per cent reservation for OBC and 10 per cent EWS reservation, while filling up 15 per cent undergraduate and 50 per cent postgraduate AIQ NEET seats.

Shyam Divan, appearing for the petitioners, had argued that there must be no reservation for the OBC community in the All-India Quota category. He cited Pradeep Jain v. Union of India where the Supreme Court raised serious concerns about the reservation in PG seats. Once a person is qualified as a doctor, he cannot be treated as belonging to a backward class anyone, the court in the said judgment held. Dr Preeti Srivastava v. State of Madhya Pradesh, in which the court was of the view that reservation in PG courses should be minimum, was also cited by Divan.

Even if reservation for the OBC category in AIQ seats is constitutionally lawful, it should not have been implemented for the academic year 2021-22 because the notification on reservation for the OBC category was issued in the previous academic year, Divan had argued. After the registration window had closed, a new category was created. It is a well-established notion that the rules of the game cannot be modified after the game has started, Divan argued. On behalf of the petitioners, it was argued that a high level of competence and knowledge is necessary at the postgraduate level. As a result, such chances must be open to the most deserving, and any reservation for PG seats would be counterproductive to the national interest.

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Tushar Mehta, Solicitor General and KM Nataraj, Additional Solicitor General, representing central government, argued that since the reservation was implemented far before to the date on which the exams were held and before the start of the counselling procedure, the rules of the game were not modified after the process had begun. They said that Clause 11.2 of the information bulletin issued in February 2021 clearly stated that the process would begin only with the commencement of the counselling process and not when the registration closes.

Since the Central Educational Institutions (Reservation in Admissions) Act 2006, which came into force in 2007, provided 27 per cent reservation to OBCs in all Central Educational institutions, AIQ scheme is a central scheme. Therefore, the Central List of OBCs shall be used for implementing the reservation they submitted.

Earlier, the court had allowed the implementation of EWS reservation in All-India Quota seats in NEET UG and PG seats for the academic year of 2021-22. Questions on the validity of the 10 per cent EWS quota would be heard in the third week of March.

The judgment can be accessed here.

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