In ten points: Explaining the Supreme Court's verdict upholding 10% EWS reservation!

In the midst of the national watch, the Supreme Court on Monday- November 7 delivered the verdict upholding a 10% reservation for the Economically Weaker Section (EWS) in education and government jobs. A five-judge bench of the apex judicial body dictated the verdict, that upheld the validity of the 103rd Constitutional amendment, which was passed by both houses of the Parliament in July 2019. 

A five-judge bench comprising of Chief Justice UU Lalit, and Justices Dinesh Maheswari, S Ravindra Bhat, Bela M Trivedi, and JB Pardiwala has penned the discordant verdict where three justices backed the EWS reservation while rest two, including the Chief Justice, delivered dissenting judgments. The ruling has come after hearing a bunch of petitions that were filed to challenge the amendment for such a reservation. Let's take a look at how the justices have drawn a divide,

  • This 10 percent reservation for EWS in the upper caste tier was introduced by the BJP just before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Dubbed as a drive of the BJP to woo its key voter base, the amendment of the EWS quota was vehemently opposed by several parties. However, the amendment was passed in Parliament in 2019, prompting the dissidents to approach the Supreme Court. 
  • Around 40 petitions were filed to challenge the amendment, which aimed to provide government jobs and education to the EWS in the general category - in other words, the reservation for economically weaker people who won't fall under the backward, SC, ST categories. The Centre claimed that the amendment would promote social equality by providing equal opportunities to those who have been excluded by virtue of their economic status. The bill had a hasty move in the Parliament as within four days, the bill was passed in both houses of Parliament and received presidential assent. 
  • It then came into force and several state cabinets approved the law and announced their intention to implement the unprecedented reservation model. As this EWS quota would bypass the existing 50% reservation category for the backward categories, several activists and forums have opposed the quota and they urged the Centre to go with the quota without altering the existing reservation cap.
  • The leaders of Backward Classes welfare groups approached the apex court and argued that the EWS groups didn't meet the criteria of the reservations set out by the court in an earlier case. However, two weeks after the amendment passed, the Supreme Court in January 2019 refused to revoke the EWS reservation. 
  • Owing to the growing petitions against the EWS quota, the court in August 2020 transferred the matter to a five-judge bench for a majority verdict. The bench was recently set up and after a marathon hearing, the Supreme Court had on this September 27 reserved the verdict, and months after closing the argument, it has now delivered its verdict that the EWS quota is constitutionally valid. 
  • The five-judge bench of the apex court on Monday delivered the split verdict where Justices Dinesh Maheswari, Bela Trivedi, and Pardiwala upheld the amendment while Chief Justice UU Lalit and Justice Ravindra Bhat dissented from the reservation. Ahead of delivering judgments, Justice Maheswari said that three major points were considered in determining the case and they were- whether the reservation was a tool for the inclusion of social and economically backward classes in the mainstream, whether it violated the basic structure of the constitution, and whether the exclusion of classes from getting EWS violates the basic structure of the constitution. 
  • Justice Maheswari observed that the EWS reservation was an instrument of affirmative action that ensures an inclusive march toward the goal of an egalitarian society. He pronounced, "reservation on economic basis does not violate basic structure or constitution of India." He further said, "EWS reservation doesn't violate the equality code or violate essential features of the constitution. Breach of 50% doesn't violate the basic structure as the ceiling limit is not inflexible", and added that the amendment is based on the economic criteria. 
  • Echoing Justice Maheswari, Justice Bela Trivedi said that the 103rd Constitution amendment can't be struck down citing a violation of basic structure. He said, "The amendment has to be treated as affirmative action by the Parliament for the benefit of the EWS class and it doesn't violate the equality code." "At the end of 75 years, we need to take a relook at reservations in general in the spirit of transformative constitutionalism." 
  • Justice Pardiwala has also backed the amendment and said, "The movement started seven decades back and the long-standing development and education has helped in reducing the gap. The ones who have moved ahead should be removed from backward classes so that the ones in need can be helped. The ways to determine backward classes need a relook so that ways are relevant in today's time." 
  • However, dissenting the amendment, Justice Ravindra Bhat said that the Constitution doesn't permit exclusion and observed that the amendment undermines the fabric of social justice and thereby the basic structure. He said, "This amendment strikes at the heart of the equality code which is the core of the Constitution and acts against the socially disadvantaged class." By citing that the EWS reservation destroys the equality code, Bhat stated that the amendment is arbitrary and creates hostility for the socially disadvantaged. 

Bhat pronounced that, "This amendment is deluding us to believe that those getting social and backward class benefits are somehow better placed. This court has held that 16(1) - equality of opportunity for all citizens in matters relating to employment or appointment to any office under the state and 16(4) - nothing shall prevent the state from making any provision for the reservation are facets of the same equality principle. This amendment bestowing double benefits is incorrect. This exclusion violates the non-discriminatory and non-exclusionary facet of the equality code." 

A divisive desk: Five-judge bench of Supreme Court delivering the verdict on EWS quota - Nov 7, 2022


Striking down the EWS amendment, Justice Bhat underlined that though economic criteria for accessing public goods is permissible but for discrimination, it is struck down as unconstitutional and becomes void on the ground that it is violative of the basic structure of the constitution. Chief Justice UU Lalit said, "I have concurred with the view taken by Justice Bhat in its entirety."