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While refusing to stay the implementation of 10 per cent quota for economically weaker sections (EWS) in jobs and admissions to education institutions, including private ones, the Supreme Court today (Friday, Jan 25) issued notice to the Centre giving it four weeks to respond to a petition challenging the Constitutional amendment enabling the quota.

A bench, headed by Chief Justice of India Rajan Gogoi and comprising Justice Sanjiv Khanna, was hearing petitions that seek quashing of the Constitution (103rd Amendment) Act, 2019 on the ground that it violates the basic features of the Constitution and contradicts several judgments of the Court protecting the fundamental rights.

The petitioners contend that the amendments made to Article 15 and 16 of the Constitution are legally unsustainable as they violate the Basic Structure doctrine laid down by the Supreme Court in its Kesavananda Bharati verdict by doling out reservation benefits based on economic backwardness.

The petitioners have also said that the amendments are also a violation of the Supreme Court’s nine-judge Bench judgment in Indra Sawhney case which had settled the law that economic backwardness cannot be the sole basis for reservation.

The Indra Sawhney judgment had capped reservations – meant explicitly for those from the scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and socially backward classes – at 50 per cent. The 50% ceiling limit of quota had been “engrafted as a part of the Basic Structure of the Constitution’s equality code” by the Court.

The petitioners say the amendments excluded the OBC and the SC/ST communities from the scope of the economic reservation. This, it says, “essentially implies that only those who are poor from the general categories would avail the benefits of the quotas.”

They argue that the high creamy layer limit of Rs. 8 lakh per annum ensured that the elite capture the reservation benefits.

“By way of the present amendments, the exclusion of the OBCs and the SCs/STs from the scope of the economic reservation essentially implies that only those who are poor from the general categories would avail the benefits of the quotas. Taken together with the fact that the high creamy layer limit of Rs 8 lakh per annum ensures that the elite in the OBCs and SCs/STs capture the reservation benefits repeatedly, the poor sections of these categories remain completely deprived,” says a petition.

It says the Court had settled the law that the “State’s reservation policy cannot be imposed on unaided educational institutions, and as they are not receiving any aid from the State, they can have their own admissions provided they are fair, transparent, non-exploitative and based on merit”.

The plea states, “While the impugned amendment attempts to overcome the applicability of Articles 19(1)(g) and 29(2), it remains completely silent on Article 14, which right protects the citizens from manifestly arbitrary State action.”

The petition also contends that the term “economically weaker sections” remained undefined in the Bill along with the “ambiguous” term of “State.”

Both Houses of Parliament, during the winter session, passed the Constitution (One Hundred and Twenty Fourth Amendment) Bill, 2019 – which became the Constitution (103rd Amendment) Act after it was passed and got the President’s assent – providing 10 per cent quota for the EWS for general category candidates in government jobs and higher education institutions.

Several states have already implemented the quota, including Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh.

Under the Act, people whose families have a gross annual income of up to Rs 8 lakh, from all sources, can avail the quota. Families which own over five acres agricultural land, over 1,000 square feet house, over 100 yard plot in notified municipal area, or over 200 yard plot in non-notified municipal area cannot avail the benefit of this reservation.

Besides the petitions now in the Supreme Court, a similar plea has also been filed by the DMK in Madras High Court challenging the amendments.

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