The Supreme Court on Thursday observed that the counselling for the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test post graduate courses should begin, reported Bar and Bench. However, the court reserved its verdict on pleas related to reservation under the Economically Weaker Section category.

“We have been hearing this for two days, we must start counselling in national interest,” the court said.

A three-judge bench led by Justice DY Chandrachud was hearing a batch of petitions challenging the criterion of Rs 8 lakh annual income limit to provide reservation under the Economically Weaker Section category.

The matter pertains to a plea filed by a group of National Eligibility cum Entrance Test aspirants in postgraduate and undergraduate medical courses belonging to the general category. The petition challenged the quota for Other Backward Classes and economically weaker sections.

In October, the Centre had said that it will not start counselling for medical courses till the case is settled.

During Thursday’s hearing, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta suggested that any revised criteria on the quota should be made applicable prospectively and the present counselling and admission should be held based on the existing criteria.

The government also defended the Rs 8 lakh income criterion for determining the EWS category.

Mehta argued that the 27% reservation for Other Backward Classes and 10% for the EWS category were being implemented by all central universities since 2019, reported Live Law. He said that introducing the reservation in the all India quota for medical courses was not new.

“There is no change in the rules of the game,” the solicitor general said, reported PTI. “The regime which is the subject matter of this challenge is already implemented since 2019 except in the All India Quota.”

Mehta also said that all seats in government colleges were increased by 25% to accommodate EWS quota, adding that this will then not harm the chances of the general category students.

He submitted that the question was whether the Rs 8 lakh criterion was reasonable.

“We are not in the exercise to find who is poor,” he said. “The Constitution uses the word ‘economically weaker section’. Whether economically weaker meritorius students can compete with other students, afford tuition etc, are the considerations.”

He added: “When we read in real life we understand that it’s impossible for him [students in the EWS category] to compete with others with Rs 70,000 per month [which is roughly about Rs 8 lakh in a year]. We understand the real-life context, how costly everything is.”

On January 1, the Centre had told the Supreme Court that it intended to retain the income limit as one of the criteria. The Centre had formed a three-member committee to determine a “reasonable basis” for the Economically Weaker Section quota.

At an earlier hearing of the petition on October 8, the Supreme Court had observed that the criteria of annual income of Rs 8 lakh appeared to be arbitrary and had asked the Centre to explain the rationale behind it. The Centre then formed the three-member panel to look into the criteria.

The matter gained importance after hundreds of resident doctors at medical colleges in Delhi held a protest last week against delay in college allotments after the National Entrance cum Eligibility Test. The protests were called off after Union Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya assured that the matter will be dealt with at the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court then agreed to hear the matter on an urgent basis after Solicitor General Tushar Mehta urged the chief justice of India to do so, The Hindu reported. Mehta submitted to the court that the doctors were right in agitating over concerns about their future prospects.