New Delhi: Merit cannot be reduced to narrow definitions of performance in an open competitive examination which only provides formal equality of opportunity, the Supreme Court said on Thursday as it upheld 27 per cent Other Backward Classes (OBC) reservation in All India Quota (AIQ) seats in the NEET for UG and PG medical courses.
Justifying allowing quota for Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) on existing quota for the current academic year, the bench said, “We are still in the midst of the pandemic and any delay in the recruitment of doctors would impact the ability to manage the pandemic. Hence, it is necessary to avoid any further delays in the admission process and allow counselling to begin immediately”.
A bench of Justices D Y Chandrachud and A S Bopanna passed an order detailing reasons for upholding the 27 per cent OBC reservation and allowing a 10 per cent EWS quota on existing criteria for this year.
”In view of the discussion above we hold that the reservation for OBC candidates in the AIQ seats for UG and PG medical and dental courses is constitutionally valid..,” the bench said. Dealing with the validity of the OBC quota, the bench said, “Merit cannot be reduced to narrow definitions of performance in an open competitive examination which only provides formal equality of opportunity. Competitive examinations assess basic current competency to allocate educational resources but are not reflective of excellence, capabilities and potential of an individual which are also shaped by lived experiences, subsequent training and individual character”.
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The top court said that crucially, open competitive examinations do not reflect the social, economic and cultural advantage that accrues to certain classes and contributes to their success in such exams.
“High scores in an examination are not a proxy for merit. Merit should be socially contextualized and re-conceptualized as an instrument that advances social goods like equality that we as a society value. In such a context, reservation is not at odds with merit but furthers its distributive consequences,” the bench said.
On the EWS quota, the top court said the argument of the petitioners on the validity of quota was not limited to the permissibility of reservation in the AIQ seats.
“Rather, the petitioners challenged the very criteria for the determination of the EWS, which would not only require us to hear the matter at length but would also entail us to hear all interested parties. However, in view of the delay in the counselling process due to the pendency of this petition, we deem it necessary to allow the counselling session to begin with the existing criteria for the identification of the EWS category,” the bench said.
It added that judicial propriety would not permit us to pass an interim order staying the criteria for determination of the EWS category.
“It is a settled principle of law that in matters involving a challenge to the Constitutionality of legislation or a rule, the Court must be wary to pass an interim order unless the Court is convinced that the rules are prima facie arbitrary,” it added.
The bench said, “As a result, we allow the implementation of EWS reservation in AIQ seats in NEET UG and PG seats for the academic year of 2021-2022. The EWS category shall be identified in view of the criteria in the Office Memorandum of 20190. The challenge to the validity of the criteria determined by the Pandey committee for the identification of the EWS category shall be listed for final hearing in the third week of March 2022”.
On January 7, the top court had paved the way for starting the stalled NEET-PG 2021 counselling process based on the existing 27 per cent OBC and 10 per cent EWS reservations in the All India Quota seats, saying there is an ”urgent need” to begin the admission process.
The Centre had constituted a three-member committee, comprising Ajay Bhushan Pandey, former finance secretary, VK Malhotra, member secretary, ICSSR, and Sanjeev Sanyal, Principal Economic Adviser to Centre, on November 30 last year according to an assurance given to the top court to revisit the criteria for determining EWS.
The committee in its report submitted on December 31 last year to the Centre said, ”The current gross annual family income limit for EWS of Rs 8 lakh or less may be retained. In other words, only those families whose annual income is up to Rs 8 lakh would be eligible to get the benefit of EWS reservation.” The Centre has said it has decided to accept the recommendations of the panel to retain the current gross annual family income limit for defining EWS at Rs 8 lakh or less.