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Reservation not at odds with merit, says SC as it upholds 27 pc OBC quota in NEET

New Delhi, January 20

The Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the 27 per cent quota for Other Backward Classes in National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) All India Quota seats for admission to PG medical and dental courses in state-run colleges, saying reservation was not at odds with merit as it furthered distributive justice.

A Bench led by Justice DY Chandrachud said admissions to the NEET PG courses for the year 2021 will be held as per the existing reservation of 27 per cent for OBCs and 10 per cent for EWS.

However, it said the challenge to the validity of criteria for determining the Economically Weaker Section (EWS) quota will be heard and decided by it in the third week of March.

The order came on petitions challenging reservation for OBC and EWS candidates introduced by the Centre in the AIQ seats in state government-run medical colleges through a notification dated July 29, 2021.

“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. 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 examinations,” it said.

“An oppositional paradigm of merit and reservation serves to entrench inequalities by relegating reserved candidates to the sphere of incompetence, and diminishing their capabilities,” it noted.

“In our opinion, it cannot be said the impact of backwardness simply disappears because a candidate has a graduate qualification. Indeed, a graduate qualification may provide certain social and economic mobility, but that by itself does not create parity between forward classes and backward classes. In any event, there cannot be an assertion of over-inclusion where undeserving candidates are said to be benefitting from reservation because OBC candidates who fall in the creamy layer are excluded from taking the benefit of reservation. Thus, we find that there is no prohibition in introducing reservation for socially and educationally backward classes (or the OBCs) in PG courses,” it said.

“High scores in an examination are not a proxy for merit. Merit should be socially contextualized and reconceptualized 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,” it said.

Maintaining that there was no constitutional basis to subscribe to the binary of merit and reservation, the top court said, “If open examinations present equality of opportunity to candidates to compete, reservations ensure that the opportunities are distributed in such a way that backward classes are equally able to benefit from such opportunities which typically evade them because of structural barriers.”

“This is the only manner in which merit can be a democratizing force that equalises inherited disadvantages and privileges. Otherwise claims of individual merit are nothing but tools of obscuring inheritances that underlie achievements,” it said.

Noting that “scores in an exam are not the sole determinant of excellence or capability,” the Bench said, “Even if for the sake of argument, it is assumed that scores do reflect excellence, it is not the only value that is considered as a social good. We must look at the distributive consequences of merit. Accordingly, how we assess merit should also encapsulate if it mitigates or entrenches inequalities.”

Clarifying the constitutional position, the top court said, “Articles 15(4) and 15 (5) are not an exception to Article 15 (1), which itself sets out the principle of substantive equality (including the recognition of existing inequalities). Thus, Articles 15 (4) and 15 (5) become a restatement of a particular facet of the rule of substantive equality that has been set out in Article 15 (1).”

The Bench – which had on January 7 passed a short order upholding the 27 per cent quota for OBCs in AIQ seats – has now delivered a detailed verdict giving reasons for its decision.



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