The Supreme Court on Thursday, delving into the binary created between merit and reservation, where the usual perception is that latter becomes antithetical to establishing meritocracy, held that reservation is not at odds with merit but furthers its distributive consequences.
Its stand case as it allowed the Centre to provide 27 per cent reservation to OBC and 10 per cent to economically weaker sections (EWS) in All India quota (AIQ) seats in medical courses.
A bench of Justices D.Y. Chandrachud and A.S. Bopanna said: "High scores in an examination are not a proxy for merit. Merit should be socially contextualised and reconceptualised 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."
In a 106-page judgment, Justice Chandrachud, who authored the judgment on behalf of the bench, 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".
He added that the idea of merit based on scores in an exam requires a deeper scrutiny.
The bench noted that while on certain occasions, the top court has remarked that there cannot be any reservation in super-speciality courses, it has never held that reservations in medical postgraduate courses are impermissible.
Merit cannot be reduced to narrow definitions of performance in an open competitive examination which only provides formal equality of opportunity, it said. "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," said the bench.
It further added that 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, and merit is equated to formal equality of opportunity which has to be balanced against the concerns of social justice through reservation.
The bench said the privileges that accrue to forward classes are not limited to having access to quality schooling and access to tutorials, but also includes their social networks and cultural capital (communication skills, accent, books or academic accomplishments) that they inherit from their family.
"This works to the disadvantage of individuals who are first-generation learners and come from communities whose traditional occupations do not result in the transmission of necessary skills required to perform well in open examination," it contended.
The bench noted that the exclusionary standard of merit serves to denigrate the dignity of those who face barriers in their advancement which are not of their own making.
The top court declined to entertain the argument that for many individuals, postgraduate courses are the end of the road and therefore, the PG courses should be equated with super-speciality courses and no reservation should be allowed in them. "This argument merely seeks to create an artificial distinction between the courses offered at the PG level. Further, only certain medical fields do not have SS courses and on the basis of that we cannot deem that reservation is impermissible in PG as a whole," it said.
"The challenge to the constitutional validity of OBC reservation in AIQ seats introduced through the notice dated 29 July 2021 is rejected in view of the above discussion."
A group of petitioners led by Neil Aurelio Nunes moved the top court challenging the Centre's July 29, 2021 notification to implement OBC and EWS reservation in NEET-All India Quota from the current academic session in the postgraduate courses.
As much as 15 per cent seats in undergraduate and 50 percent seats in PG courses are filled through this quota.
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