Reservation for backward classes is not at odds with merit, the Supreme Court noted on Thursday in its order upholding the existing criteria for admissions to undergraduate and postgraduate courses through the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test, reported Live Law.

“Competitive exams do not reflect economic social advantage which is accrued to some classes,” said the bench of Justices DY Chandachud and AS Bopanna. “Merit should be socially contextualised. Reservation is not at odds with merit but furthers its distributive impact.”

The court’s January 7 order meant that 27% of the seats this year will be reserved for OBCs and 10% for those in the Economically Weaker Section category. The annual income criteria of Rs 8 lakh for the Economically Weaker Section quota will also be applicable for this year’s admissions.

The bench was hearing a petition filed by a group of National Eligibility cum Entrance Test, or NEET, aspirants of postgraduate and undergraduate medical courses belonging to the general category. The petition challenged the quota for Other Backward Classes and Economically Weaker Section, or EWS.

Based on the court’s order, the Medical Counselling Committee began counselling for the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test for postgraduate courses on January 12.

In its detailed order, the court said that the scheme of All India Quota was devised to allot seats in state-run medical institutions.

“Centre was not required to seek [the] permission of this court before granting reservation in AIQ seats and thus their decision was correct,” the order read. “We hold that reservations for OBC in AIQ for undergraduate and postgraduate courses are constitutionally valid.”

The court pointed out that any change in the eligibility qualification would have further delayed the admission process.

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

admissions for this year’s medical postgraduate courses had been delayed by several months.

The matter gained importance after hundreds of resident doctors at medical colleges in Delhi held massive protests in December, affecting access to medical services, especially in the Capital. The protests were called off after Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya assured that the matter will be dealt with in the Supreme Court.

“Delay in [the] recruitment of doctors would impact pandemic response,” the court mentioned in its order, according to India Today.

However, the court has agreed to hear the matter about the validity of criteria for determining the Economically Weaker Section quota at length in the third week of March. “For EWS, we have said that argument of petitioners in validity of EWS was not limited to its share in AIQ but also on the basis criteria,” the court said. “Thus, it needs to be heard in detail.”

Earlier, a three-member committee formed by the Centre had recommended that the Rs 8 lakh annual income criteria should be retained. The committee had been formed after the Supreme Court on October 8 had observed that the criteria of the annual income of Rs 8 lakh appeared to be arbitrary and had asked the Centre to explain the rationale behind it.