Amidst raging controversy over reservations, the Supreme Court has said that the purpose of affirmative action is to transcend the caste system, not perpetuate it.
“Reservation is necessary for transcending caste and not for perpetuating it. Reservation has to be used in a limited sense otherwise it will perpetuate casteism in the country,” a five-judge Constitution Bench said while upholding the validity of four constitutional amendments relating to various aspects of quota in government jobs.
The Bench headed by Chief Justice YK Sabharwal said it was important “to find a stable equilibrium between justice to the backwards, equity for the forwards and efficiency for the entire system.”
Thursday’s apex court’s judgment on quota in promotions cautioned that “if the extent of reservation goes beyond the cut-off point, then it results in reverse discrimination”. It ordered a 50 per cent ceiling on quota saying “a numerical benchmark is the surest immunity against charges of discrimination”.
For the first time, the court introduced the concept of creamy layer in quota for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes to keep the better-offs among them out of the purview of reservations.
It further said that while providing for reservation in government jobs under various provisions contained in Article 16, the State’s discretion is subject to existence of “backwardness” and “inadequacy of representation” in public employment. “Backwardness has to be based on objective factors whereas inadequacy has to factually exist,” the Bench emphasized.
“The fact that considerable number of members of backward class have been appointed/promoted against general seats in the State services may be a relevant factor for the State Government to review the question of continuing reservation for the said class,” it said. “However, whether reservation in a given case is desirable or not, as a policy, is not for us to decide as long as the parameters mentioned in Articles 16(4) and 16(4A) are mentioned,” the court clarified.
Discussing the concept of reservation, the Bench termed it as an “anti-poverty measure”. It drew a distinction between “formal equality” and “proportional equality”.
The former “means that law treats everyone equal and does not favour anyone either because he belongs to the advantaged section of the society or to the disadvantaged section” while the latter “expects the States to take affirmative action in favour of disadvantaged sections of the society within the framework of liberal democracy.”
Observing that backwardness and inadequacy of representation were compelling reasons for the State Governments to provide representation in public employment, the apex court said the extent of reservation will depend on the facts of each case.
“If in a given case the court finds excessive reservation under the state enactment then such an enactment would be liable to be struck down since it would amount to derogation of the above constitutional requirement,” the Bench said.