The Supreme Court, while hearing petitions challenging the validity of the Maratha quota on Friday, sought to know for how long the system of reservations in the education and jobs sector will continue, Bar and Bench reported.

The petitioners had argued that the provision for 12% reservation for Marathas in jobs and 13% in admissions would breach the ceiling of 50% quota limit imposed by the Supreme Court in a landmark verdict in 1992.

The court asked the question after senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi, appearing for the Maharashtra government, urged it to re-examine the 50% ceiling on the reservation for economically and socially backward classes.

Rohatgi argued that the ceiling on reservation needed a relook since there had been changes in circumstances over the years. The court asked him if it can be said that no members of backward castes had advanced over the years.

“Yes, we have moved forward,” Rohatgi replied, according to Bar and Bench. “But it is not that backward classes have gone down from 50 to 20%. We still have starvation deaths in this country.”

The five-judge Constitution Bench, headed by Justice Ashok Bhushan, expressed concern about the inequality that will emerge if the ceiling is removed. “If there is no 50% or no limit, as you are suggesting, what is the concept of equality?” the court asked, according to Bar and Bench. “We will ultimately have to deal with it. What is your reflection on that. What will be Article 14? How many generations will you continue...?”

Also read: Maratha quota: Supreme Court seeks response from all states on 50% cap on reservation

The senior lawyer clarified that he did not think the Supreme Court’s cap on reservations should be scrapped altogether. “I am raising issues – where 30 years have gone by, the law has changed, the population has grown, backward persons may also have increased,” he added.

Rohtagi argued that no cap on reservation was prescribed in the Constitution and it was up to the government to make a decision, The Times of India reported.

“The fact of the matter is Parliament should know what is going on in the country,” Rohatgi said, according to PTI. “If Parliament knows it [reservation] is more than 50% and has given 10% to a class of economically backward section, no warrant from court should say it cannot go over 50%.”

The court will continue hearing the matter on Monday since the arguments remained inconclusive.

On March 8, the Supreme Court had issued a notice to all states, seeking their response on whether reservation could be allowed beyond the 50% ceiling.

Senior lawyers Mukul Rohtagi, Kapil Sibal and Abhishek Manu Singhvi told the court that the matter concerned all the states, as the court’s verdict could have an impact on their authority to provide reservation.

On September 9, 2020, the Supreme Court had stayed reservations in educational institutions and government jobs provided to the Maratha community under the Socially and Educationally Backward Classes Act, 2018. The Maratha community roughly forms one-third of the state population.

The three judge-bench headed by Justice L Nageswara Rao referred the matter to Chief Justice SA Bobde to constitute a larger bench and examine the validity of such a quota. The court, however, clarified that admissions already made under the Maratha quota in postgraduate medical courses will not be affected. It added that the status of those who have availed of the benefits will also not be disturbed.

In 2018, the then Devendra Fadnavis-led government in Maharashtra had approved 16% reservation for the Marathas in jobs and education after statewide protests. However, the Bombay High Court, while upholding the constitutional validity of the law stated that 16% reservation was not justifiable. It directed the state government to reduce the quota to 12-13% as per the recommendations of the State Backward Classes Commission. The court also maintained that 50% cap on total reservations imposed by the Supreme Court could be exceeded in exceptional circumstances.