On Monday, the Madras High Court asked the Centre to form a committee with the Tamil Nadu government and the Medical Council of India to chalk out the manner in which reservations for Other Backward Class candidates could be implemented for medical seats in the “All India Quota”.

The All India Quota consists of 15% of MBBS seats in state-run medical colleges surrendered by the state government to the Centre. This 15% quota is open to students of other states who may have not been able to secure admission to colleges in their home states. There is also an All India Quota for postgraduate seats in medical education, for which states surrender 50% of their total seats to the central pool.

For a long time, the Centre has delayed implementing reservations due for OBC applicants to these seats. The matter had been stalled because a case concerning the implementation of the All India Quota has been pending before the Supreme Court since 2015. The Medical Council of India had argued that the All India Quota had been created by the Supreme Court so admission procedures could not be changed without court approval.

However, rapid developments both in the Supreme Court and the High Court ensured that the case was heard and a judgment delivered, paving the way for OBC reservations in the All India Quota to be implemented from the next academic year.

The case was restricted to petitions filed by political parties in Tamil Nadu and thus the legal question was confined to the state. But because the principle articulated by the Madras High Court could apply across the country, the verdict may result in the Centre opening up the seats for OBCs in all states.

The larger question, however, is if the Medical Council of India will go ahead with framing the procedures for the OBC quota or if it will approach the Supreme Court again, having claimed before the High Court that the scheme cannot be altered without the apex court’s approval.

All India Quota

Earlier this year, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, with arguments led by its Rajya Sabha member and former Additional Solicitor General P Wilson, moved a petition in the Supreme Court asking for OBC reservations in the All India Quota for medical seats to be implemented. The Supreme Court took the view that since reservations were not a fundamental right, the parties were not entitled to move the Supreme Court directly under Article 32 of the Constitution. It asked the petitioners to move the Madras High Court.

But since the Medical Council of India had cited a case pending in the Supreme Court as a barrier for hearing the matter, the litigation went back to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court said that the questions involved in the Tamil Nadu case were different from the question in Saloni Kumari vs State of Uttar Pradesh. It then asked the High Court to expeditiously hear the matter.

According to Wilson, the Saloni Kumari case involved the application of the OBC reservation policy that emanated from the 2006 Constitutional amendment to Article 15, which opened the gates for OBC quota in higher education institutions. The Tamil Nadu case pertained to the implementation of a Medical Council of India regulation, which said the “reservation of seats in medical colleges/institutions for respective categories shall be as per applicable laws prevailing in states/Union territories”. Wilson argued that for seats from Tamil Nadu, this meant OBCs were entitled 50% of places.

High Court verdict

In its verdict on Monday, the High Court traced the genesis of the legal dispute in some detail. From the 1980s, when the Supreme Court created the All India Quota in Pradeep Jain vs Union of India, the position was that for the seats in the Central pool, the reservations policy for candidates from disadvantaged groups need not apply. The Medical Council of India said in its affidavit that the Supreme Court directed that a certain percentage of seats must be filled purely on merit without applying reservations in any form.

The basis for creating the All India Quota is that there is inequality in terms of medical education infrastructure between states and among regions within a state. The quota would help students from states with less-developed medical education infrastructure to access seats in other places. The court, by then, had also began insisting on an all-India entrance examination for medical education as it said it did not want to compromise on merit in any way.

DMK Rajya Sabha MP P Wilson, who led the case for implementation of OBC quota in medical seats. Credit: Rajya Sabha TV/YouTube

Several litigations followed through the 1990s and 2000s. In 2007, in Abhay Nath and others vs University of Delhi, the Supreme Court ruled that in 50% of seats for the postgraduate courses, reservations for Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe would apply. However, questions about reservations emerged again after the Supreme Court in 2009, in a case from Haryana, it said that the clarification on applying quotas in the Abhay Nath case would apply only to central institutions till the state governments clearly frame policies to implement the quota. In the case of Tamil Nadu, a law on quotas was passed in 1993.

According to Wilson, regulation 5(5) of the Graduate Medical Education Regulations, 1997 and 9(4) of Post Graduate Medical Education Regulations, 2000 clearly say that the state reservation policy would apply to the seats. However, the term “All India Quota” was not used in the regulation. The Medical Council of India had repeatedly used this to oppose a positive direction from the High Court.

In its submission, the council said the regulations deal only with the seats to be filled in the state quota. “The regulations do not have any bearing on the All India Quota which is governed completely by the orders of the Supreme Court,” it argued.

Meanwhile, Wilson, quoting a letter he received from the Centre, had argued the Central government had given states the liberty to frame laws on quotas that would be applied to the admissions. Wilson said, as the High Court also pointed out, this was a rare case where all parties in Tamil Nadu were on the same page.

In the verdict, the Madras High Court rejected the contentions of the Medical Council of India that nothing can be done without a specific order from the Supreme Court. The High Court referred to the position that quotas for OBCs were already in force in Central institutions and that the Supreme Court itself had referred to the powers of Parliament to frame a proper law for quota implementation and had hoped this would be done.

It pointed out that it was time for the Centre to declare the OBC reservation policy, which it had claimed before the Supreme Court was under consideration.

With regards Tamil Nadu, the court directed that a committee be formed with officials of the Centre, the state and the Medical Council of India to frame the mode of implementation. What the Centre will now have to decide is whether the central uniform quota of 27% for OBCs would apply to the All India Quota or if the 50% quota according to the state law would apply.

The court, however, has said that the state reservation policy in this matter cannot be ignored, as Tamil Nadu had, in 1993, enacted law on the reservation policy in the state. The court said:

“The aforesaid observations, therefore, indicate that a policy relating to extending the benefit of reservations vis-a-vis qualifying marks and admissions has to be reviewed jointly by the Central Government as well as by the Medical Council of India. At the same time, once the constitutional mandate enabling the State to frame a law has been crystallised by the framing of a particular law by the State Government, then its applicability vis-a-vis All India quota to the extent the percentage is permissible cannot be ignored.”

The court then cautioned, while the state policy cannot be ignored, “the balance which has to be struck is in order to avoid any undesirable disbalance of representation of candidates qualifying on merit in the NEET [National Eligibility cum Entrance Test] examinations”.

In this photo taken on December 3, 2019, a note gives recommendations to students for the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test-Undergraduate as Kashmiri students gather to use the internet outside a Tourist Reception Centre in Srinagar. Credit: Tauseef Mustafa/AFP

The High Court pointed out that since medical education now has a common qualifying examination in NEET, the point of merit has already been taken care of and reservations for OBC candidates will not affect the question of merit.

However, the problem with the High Court order is its position that it cannot issue a mandamus, or a directive enforcing a right, in the case, asking the Centre to implement the quota. The High Court argued that though the Tamil Nadu government claims it already has a law that provides a right to OBC students to avail of the quota, the Centre has till now only said it was considering the quota implementation in the All India pool seats. In a sense, the law in connection with the OBC quota has not crystallised. Hence the directive to form a committee and decide on the implementation within three months.

The argument is self-contradictory. When the court has admitted that there is a state law governing quotas and a regulation that the quota policy of the state would apply to the admissions, to say that a mandamus cannot be issued to the Centre to enforce the state law through the Medical Council of India regulation provides too much leniency to the Centre, which has delayed the implementation of the quota for years.

The quota went unimplemented both under the previous United Progressive Alliance regime as well as under the current Bharatiya Janata Party-led government.

Second, the High Court has said that the seats surrendered by the states neither belong to the Centre nor the state and that neither can claim to label them. This negates the state’s position that the seats are created through investment from the state government.

National impact

While the case was restricted to Tamil Nadu in its pleadings, the decision of the High Court has wider ramifications. First, the principle of applying OBC quotas to the Central pool seats is the same across all states. If the Centre agrees to apply the quota to seats from Tamil Nadu, it cannot then say it will not do this for seats from other states.

In this lies the problem of implementation. The states do not have a uniform reservation policy. Some states provide higher percentage of quota for OBCs and some lower.

There is also the question of state capacity that will affect certain sections that have differing quotas at the Central and state level. A state may have a higher number of medical seats to offer to the Central pool, but the quota for certain categories could be smaller than what is provided at the Central level. For example, some states have only 1% quota for Scheduled Tribes, whereas at the Central level the category has 7.5%. This could lead to certain categories losing seats.

The Madras High Court. Credit: IANS

This brings to focus the committee that the High Court said should be formed to implement the OBC quota in seats surrendered by Tamil Nadu. The ideal way to do so would be to form a committee including all states and ensure that the problem of implementing the quota is sorted once and for all, but without delaying the process with regards Tamil Nadu given the nature of the High Court directive. Since the court has said that the quota would only apply to the next academic year, there is enough time for such an all-India exercise.

Further, this also provides the Centre the chance to bring the Saloni Kumari case in the Supreme Court to an end by declaring that it is now ready to apply the OBC quota to the Central pool medical seats.

However, given the position taken by the Medical Council of India before the High Court that the quota policy cannot be altered without the approval of the Supreme Court, the case could very well see another round of litigation. In addition, the Director General of Health Services argued before the Supreme Court in July that while it was in favour of applying state-specific laws to quotas in the medical seats, such quota should not exceed 50%. But given that the Centre has now amended the Constitution to provide 10% reservation for Economically Weaker Sections among upper castes, this position may not be tenable.

Any attempt to negate the High Court order could put the Bharatiya Janata Party in a political fix. With elections coming up in states like Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and West Bengal over the next 12 months, any position opposing quotas for OBCs, even if it is taken by the Medical Council of India and not the Centre directly, could have political repercussions.