Explainer | 50% Reservation Rule & Bihar Caste-Quota Law Judgment Of Patna High Court

Update: 2024-06-25 06:10 GMT
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Recently, the Patna High Court struck down the laws passed by the Bihar Legislative Assembly providing 65% reservation to the domiciles of Bihar belonging to Schedule Castes (SCs), Schedule Tribes (STs), and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in matters of public employment and admission to education institutions. The Court reasoned that the enhancement of reservations beyond the 50% is bad in law...

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Recently, the Patna High Court struck down the laws passed by the Bihar Legislative Assembly providing 65% reservation to the domiciles of Bihar belonging to Schedule Castes (SCs), Schedule Tribes (STs), and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in matters of public employment and admission to education institutions. The Court reasoned that the enhancement of reservations beyond the 50% is bad in law and goes against the principles of equality emanating from the Constitution.

The decision of the Bihar Government to provide 65% reservations to certain reserved categories was based on the Caste Survey Report (2023) conducted in the State of Bihar. The Bihar Government's Caste Survey report states that the majority of the population within the State, belongs to the marginalized and deprived communities of Backward & Extremely Backward Classes, Scheduled Castes, and Scheduled Tribes, therefore, an attempt was made by the Bihar Government to provide reservation in proportion to the composition of the castes in the State.

The Bihar Government's argument for breaching the 50% ceiling limit was based on the concept of 'proportionate representation' which means that reservation should be provided in proportion to the caste composition in the state. As per the caste survey report 85% of Bihar's total Population comprises of SCs, STs, and OBCs; therefore, the State Government justified 65% reservation provided to such categories.

The legality of the Bihar Government's decision to extend the benefit of reservation beyond the 50% ceiling limit was challenged in the batch of petitions before the Patna High Court. The Petitioner's thrust of the argument opposing the Bihar Government's decision was based on the ratio laid down in the MR Balaji case wherein for the first time the Supreme Court innovated the 50% ceiling limit on providing reservation. The Court in MR Balaji held that reservation if provided above 50% would be violative of the right to equality. Later, the ratio of MR Balaji was approved by the Nine Judges Bench of the Supreme Court in the Indra Sawhney case.

Reservation Could Be Extended Beyond 50% Ceiling Limit In Special Circumstances 

Though, the Supreme Court in Indra Sawhney held that no reservation could extend beyond the ceiling limit of 50% it did recognize the need for exceptional treatment in special circumstances. The Court said that the limit need not be strictly adhered to while making provisions of reservation for inhabitants residing in far-flung areas or remote areas that remain out of the mainstream of national life and the conditions peculiar and characteristic to them,could lead to different treatment being meted out to them, even justifying a breach of the 50% rule.

“While 50% shall be the rule, it is necessary not to put out of consideration certain extraordinary situations inherent in the great diversity of this country and the people. It might happen that in far flung and remote areas the population inhabiting those areas might, on account of their being out of the mainstream of national life and in view of conditions peculiar to and characteristical to them, need to be treated in a different way, some relaxation in this strict rule may become imperative. In doing so, extreme caution is to be exercised and a special case made out.”, the Court observed in Para 810 of the Indra Sawhney case.

Observing that the 50% ceiling limit could be breached in extraordinary circumstances, the Court in the Indra Sawhney Case noted that every excess over 50 percent will have to be justified on valid grounds to make such an extension in conformity with Articles 16(1) and 16(4) of the Constitution.

“The adequacy of representation is not to be determined merely on the basis of the over all numerical strength of the backward classes in the services. For determining the adequacy, their representation at different levels of administration and in different grades has to be taken into consideration. It is the effective voice in the administration and not the total number which determines the adequacy of representation.”, the court observed in Indra Sawhney.

Likewise, the Supreme Court in Union of India v. Rakesh Kumar gave exceptional treatment to the Schedule Tribes while upholding the Jharkhand Panchayat Raj Act that reserved 80% of seats in the Panchayats for the people belonging to Schedule Tribes in Schedule Areas. However, the Supreme Court K. Krishna Murthy v. Union of India clarified that exceptional considerations of crossing the ceiling limits cannot be invoked when the quantum of reservations is examined in favor of backward classes for the purpose of local bodies located in general areas.

Why Bihar Government's Arguments Justifying Breach Of Ceiling Limit Rejected

The Bihar Government's argument for providing reservation beyond the ceiling limit was that since the backward classes constitute the major part of the population and their representation in the various services and educational institutions is lesser in proportion than the unreserved category of government employees, therefore an affirmative action to provide 65% reservation to reserved category is nothing but an exceptional treatment being permissible in the Constitution.

The Bihar Government's argument was considered bad and rejected by the High Court because the caste survey report doesn't specify the status of the people at large in a caste and the economic and social status they achieved based on the reservations & beneficial schemes. Moreover, the report also doesn't provide data about a particular caste to ascertain their social and economic status as compared to castes which had developed marginally.

If the Bihar Government's argument was accepted, then it would lead to a situation of possible discrimination within the backward caste and most backward caste because there would be situations in which one or more of the castes which had developed better than the others would continue to appropriate the benefits because of the social and financial capital they had achieved over the years, the High Court said.

The Bihar Government's reliance on the M. Nagaraj Case was also rejected by the High Court on the ground that reservation could not be extended merely on the ground there exists quantifiable data. The availability of quantifiable data cannot justify the breach of the ceiling limit to implement an affirmative measure.

Though reservation could be extended beyond the ceiling limit in exceptional circumstances, the Top Court in Jaishri Laxmanrao Patil (Maratha Reservation Case) went on to say that the social, educational, and economic backwardness of a community, the existence of quantifiable data relating to the inadequacy of representation of the community in public services and deprivation of the benefits flowing from reservations to the community are not exceptional circumstances for providing reservations above 50%.

An argument may be made regarding the applicability of the Rakesh Kumar case in the present case that the reservation beyond the ceiling limit is permissible for the candidates belonging to the reserved categories. However, the Court in the Chebrolu Leela Prasad Rao case clarified that the ratio of Rakesh Kumar was concerned with the reservations in local self-government institutions & bodies wherein the reservation in Panchayati Raj Institutions, cannot be readily compared with affirmative action measures enabled by Article 15(4) and 16(4) of the Constitution.

The Bihar Government took a plea that since Bihar is not situated in the national mainstream, therefore the breach of the ceiling limit is justified enabling the State to make provisions for reservation beyond the ceiling limit. Rejecting such an argument, the High Court noted that Bihar is situated in the national mainstream and is the epicenter of National Politics.  

In Janhit Abhiyan v.Union of India, a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court, while upholding the EWS reservation, observed that the 50% ceiling limit is not an inflexible rule and that it was applicable only for SC/ST/OBC reservations and not to EWS Quota.

"Reservations for economically weaker sections of citizens up to 10% in addition to the existing reservations does not result in violation of any essential feature of the Constitution and does not cause any damage to the basic structure of the Constitution of India on account of breach of the ceiling limit of 50%. This is because that ceiling limit itself is not inflexible and in any case applies only to the reservations envisioned by Articles 15(4), 15(5) and 16(4) of the Constitution of India," the Court observed in the EWS case. 


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