The Supreme Court on Monday upheld the Centre’s decision to grant a 10% quota to persons from Economically Weaker Sections in admissions and jobs, observing that it does not violate the Constitution.

A five-judge Constitution bench was hearing a batch of petitions challenging the reservation. Justices Dinesh Maheshwari, Bela Trivedi and JB Pardiwala upheld the quota, while Chief Justice UU Lalit and Justice Rabindra Bhat dissented from the majority opinion.

A total of four judgements were passed.

EWS quota and the petitions against it

In 2019, the Union government had introduced the Economically Weaker Sections quota for those who cannot avail of the reservations granted to Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes, but have an annual family income of less than Rs 8 lakh.

However, persons from families that own more than five acres of agricultural land or 1,000 square feet of residential land, are not eligible for the quota.

The petitioners had challenged the 103rd amendment to the Constitution which paved way for the reservation. The amendment introduced changes to Articles 15 and 16 that deal with the right to equality and provide the basis for reservations.

The Supreme Court had reserved its judgement after the hearing concluded on September 27.

The 3:2 judgement

Four separate judgements were passed on Monday, but the majority view of Justices Maheshwari, Trivedi and Pardiwala prevailed over the dissenting verdict of Justice Bhat and Chief Justice Lalit.

The majority verdict held that allocation of the 10% fell within the powers vested with the legislature in the Constitution. On the other hand, the dissenting judges said that the quota cannot keep SC, ST and OBC categories out of its ambit as the Constitution does not allow exclusion.

Justice Maheshwari, the first to deliver his verdict, held that the amendment does not violate the Constitution or breach the 50% limit set on giving reservations, reported Live Law. He held that reservations are “a means of inclusion of any class or section so disadvantaged”.

In concurrence with Maheshwari, Justice Trivedi said that the amendment that allows states to make make special provisions for those other than the members of Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes communities has to be treated as an affirmative action by Parliament, reported Bar and Bench.

“They cannot be treated at par with citizens of general category,” she added. “Such classification does not violate the equality code.”

She also called for the need to re-evaluate the quota system in the spirit of “transformative constitutionalism” but said that it cannot be denied that caste system in India led to introduction of reservations so that Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes communities get a level-playing field.

Justice Pardiwala also concurred with Maheshwari’s and Trivedi’s judgement, according to Bar and Bench.

He said that caste-based reservations had started more than 70 years ago to end social and economic inequality and has helped in minimising the gap.

“The ones who have moved ahead should be removed from backward classes so that ones in need can be helped,” he said. “The ways to determine backward classes need a re-look so that ways are relevant in todays time.”

Agreeing with Trivedi, the judge also said that the reservation should not continue for an indefinite time and become a “vested interest”.

Meanwhile, Justice Bhat who authored the dissenting verdict, differed from the majority opinion on the grounds that by not keeping persons from SC, ST and OBC categories within the ambit of the 10% quota, the basic structure doctrine of the Constitution – which cannot be erased by the legislature – had been violated.

“By excluding the poor among SC/ST/OBC from economically backward classes, the amendment practices constitutionally prohibited forms of discrimination,” he held.

Stating that the bulk of the poor belong to the Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribes or Other Backward Class categories, Bhat said that while the amendment was valid, it should be struck down for being in violation of the basic structure.

Lalit concurred with Bhat’s judgement.

Hearings in the matter

Last year, the Supreme Court had made a prima facie observation that these criteria seemed arbitrary. Since the income criteria of Rs 8 lakh per annum were used to exclude the “creamy layer” from the Other Backward Classes quota, the court questioned if the Centre had mechanically included the distinction for Economically Weaker Sections as well.

During the hearings, the Supreme Court had said it wanted to examine whether the 10% quota for upper caste economically weak aspirants in government jobs and college admissions violated the basic structure of the Constitution.

Advocate Mohan Gopal, representing a group of petitioners, had told the Supreme Court that the 103rd amendment is a “fraud on the Constitution”.

The Centre had defended the legislation, saying that the quota for the Economically Weaker Sections did not erode the rights of Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities as they already enjoy a lot of benefits.

Reactions to the verdict

Several Bharatiya Janata Party leaders welcomed the court’s verdict on Monday. The party’s National General Secretary BL Santhosh tweeted saying that the decision was a boost for social justice and gave credit to Prime Minister Narendra Modi for ensuring welfare of the poor.

Maharashtra Chief Minister Eknath Shinde wrote in a tweet that that the verdict will bring relief to the “poor and weaker sections of all castes and religions”.

“The decision in this regard in the Supreme Court today will certainly be useful in bringing the poor into the mainstream,” he added.

Congress MP and the party’s general secretary in-charge of communications said that the outfit welcomes the decision.

“The amendment itself was the result of a process initiated by Dr Manmohan Singh’s government in 2005-06 with the appointment of the Sinho Commission that submitted its report in July 2010,” he wrote in a statement.

However, Congress leader Udit Raj said the verdict had showed beyond doubt that the Supreme Court was a “casteist” institution.

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader MK Stalin said that the verdict was a setback for the “century-long crusade for social justice”.

“All the likeminded parties shall come together as one to fight the social injustice called EWS quota and carry the struggle forward,” he wrote in a tweet.