A fresh controversy over reservations in jobs arose on Thursday with the Supreme Court ruling that the better off among the scheduled castes (SCs) and scheduled tribes (STs) -- the 'creamy layer' -- should not be allowed to benefit from them.
Until now it was only the status of the 'creamy layer' among the OBCs that was the subject of public debate. The judgment is historic in that the 'creamy layer' among SCs and STs had never before been discussed.
A five-judge constitution bench headed by Chief Justice YK Sabharwal gave this order after hearing a batch of petitions challenging the validity of four constitutional amendments relating to various aspects of reservation for SCs and STs in government jobs, including the issue of reservation in promotions. With it, the affluent among the SCs and STs now stand disqualified from enjoying the special privileges the Constitution envisages for their communities.
The cabinet had recently decided to extend reservations to OBCs in educational institutions, without clarifying whether this included the 'creamy layer' among the OBCs. Although the judgment is not related to OBCs, it will make it difficult for the government to keep the well off OBCs within the ambit of reservations in education.
The court said the enactments by various states that are currently being challenged in various courts would be decided in accordance with the law laid down by it in this case.
While upholding the validity of quota for SCs and STs in recruitment and promotions, the bench made it clear that the upper limit of quota at 50 per cent could not be exceeded. "The quantitative limit of 50 per cent shall be a binding rule," it stated.
It said the government would have to justify in each case the compelling reasons for providing reservations "keeping in mind the overall efficiency of state administration" as required under Article 335 of the Constitution. "It is made clear that even if the State has compelling reasons, the State will have to see that its reservation provision does not lead to excessiveness so as to breach the ceiling limit of 50 per cent or obliterate the creamy layer or extend reservation indefinitely," the court said.
It held that the 'catch-up principle' and concept of 'consequential seniority' could not be given the status of an axiom like "secularism" and "federalism". "They do not constitute basic features of the Constitution," it observed.
The judgment pointed out that while reservations were justified, the State had to ensure that the controlling factors mentioned in Article 16(4) -- that empower them to legislate in favour of backward classes -- continue to preserve the egalitarian structure of society.
The court said the provision providing reservation was an "enabling provision" and states were not bound to make reservation for SC/STs in promotions. However, if they wished to do so, they would have to collect quantifiable data establishing the backwardness of the class and its inadequate representation in public employment.