Neil Aurelio Nunes and Ors v UOI and Ors is a landmark judgment on equality jurisprudence transforming the limited meaning of equality from ‘formal equality’ i.e. treating everyone equally to ‘substantive equality which aims to achieve equality in its distributive sense. The court broadened the meaning of merit and held that merit cannot be seen in the light… Read More »

Neil Aurelio Nunes and Ors v UOI and Ors is a landmark judgment on equality jurisprudence transforming the limited meaning of equality from ‘formal equality’ i.e. treating everyone equally to ‘substantive equality which aims to achieve equality in its distributive sense. The court broadened the meaning of merit and held that merit cannot be seen in the light of an individual’s high score in open competitive exam rather it has to be seen in the light of “conditions and circumstances that stand in the way of equal access to the enjoyment of basic rights or claims” to the discriminated and backward communities.

The policy of reservation is a step in aid to achieving social justice by providing a forum for upliftment to backward classes. Reservation for OBC candidates in the AIQ seats in UG and PG medical and dental courses is constitutionally valid.

Citation: Writ Petition(s)(Civil) No(s).961/2021

Coram: Hon’ble Justice Dr. Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud and Hon’ble Justice Mr. A S Bopanna

Factual Background

The Directorate General of Health Services in the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare issued a notice for providing 27 percent reservation for OBC (NCL) and 10 percent reservation for EWS in the 15% and 50% PG seats in All India Quota ( AIQ) from the academic year 2021-2022.

Presently under AIQ scheme, 15% UG seats and 50% PG seats in state-run institutions are filled by AIQ i.e. on merit by conducting open competition. The remaining 85% seats in UG and 50% seats in PG courses are reserved for candidates domiciled in the respective States. Reservation for SC and ST candidates was permissible in AIQ seats as per Abhay Nath v. University of Delhi.[1]

The Central Educational Institutions (Reservation in Admissions) Act 2006 was enacted which provided for reservation up to 15% to SC ST and OBCS in Central educational Institutions. However, reservation for OBCs was not extended to state contributed for AIQ in State-run institutions.

The state of Tamil Nadu granted 50% reservation to OBCs in State-run medical institutions. The controversy in the present case arose due to giving reservations to OBC in AIQ seats. Therefore, a writ petition was instituted seeking mandamus to provide OBC reservation in AIQ. The present writ petition challenges the reservation for OBC and EWS in the AIQ seats in the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test examination (NEET).

Arguments of Petitioner

Mr. Shyam Divan argued that reservation to the OBC community in the AIQ shall not be given on the following basis-

  • Once a person becomes a qualified doctor i.e attains a graduate degree he cannot be treated as a person belonging to a backward class.
  • Admission in PG and super specialty high degree of skills and expert knowledge so it should be made available to the most meritorious candidates as merit cannot be compromised.

Arguments by Respondent

Mr. Tushar Mehta, Solicitor General addressing the UOI argued that 27%reservation to OBC in AIQ seats is constitutionally valid on the following grounds-

  • AIQ is a central scheme and it will benefit a lot of candidates in getting admission.
  • Providing reservation for AIQ seats is never held to be unconstitutional and it is a policy matter of State.
  • Merit is solely not dependent upon marks.

Issues involved

  1. Whether the very concept of the reservation to the OBC community in AIQ Quota in PG NEET compromises with merit and is detrimental to national interest?
  2. Whether providing reservations to OBC candidates under AIQ in State-run medical and dental colleges is constitutional?

Judgment

The argument that Reservation is antithetical to meritocracy is not justified. It was felt by Constituent Assembly that there must be a provision for uplifting those communities which have been discriminated against in past to enter into administration as they were deprived of access to equal opportunity and access to resources.

Drafting Committee notably observed that the purpose behind introducing draft Article 10(now Article 16(4)) was to achieve the highest efficiency in State Services and also to uplift the backward classes by adequately representing them in the State services. Merit cannot be seen in isolation from the existing inequalities in the society, ‘social justice must be read into the promise of equality of opportunity; otherwise, the latter merely advances the interests of the privileged.

Substantive Equality i.e merit of candidates cannot be solely evaluated on the basis of open competition without regard to their social positions, conditions, and circumstances stemming from the discrimination faced from years curtailing their equal access to their basic rights. No one can be denied equal rights just because they do not meet certain artificial standards set up by institutions.

Articles 14, 15(1), and 16(1) prescribe the general principle of equality, and Articles 15(4)(i.e reservation) and 16(4) further to this general principle, advancing the cause of social justice. Special provisions aiming to ameliorate structural inequalities existing in the society like reservations made for the upliftment and benefit of backward classes cannot be an exception to formal equality.

‘Therefore, Articles 16(4) is not an exception but rather a facet of Article 16(1) which seeks to redress the historical disadvantage suffered by certain communities’.(same was reiterated by Hon’ble Justice Mr. R Subba Rao in his dissenting opinion in T.Devadasam v. Union of India).

Article 16(4) is crucial to achieving substantive equality that is envisaged under Article 16(4). the reservation policy seeks to remedy the structural barriers faced by the disadvantaged groups in society. Substantive equality (i.e a broader view of equality doctrine) in its true sense can be achieved by addressing the structural barriers faced by certain classes of citizens referred to as the “conditions and circumstances that stand in the way of their equal access to the enjoyment of basic rights or claims”.

An open competitive exam ensures formal equality where every individual is given an equal opportunity to participate but social justice cannot be achieved by negating the injustices stemming from widespread discrimination, inequality, unequal access to educational facilities, and other resources resulting in deprivation of their rights. Privileges to forward classes like good quality education, access to tutorials and coaching to prepare for competitive exams, social network, cultural capital which they inherit from their family.

Hon’ble Justice Dr. Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud emphasized thatcultural capital like communication skills, accent, books or academic accomplishments ensures that a child is trained unconsciously by the familial environment to take up higher education or high posts commensurate with their family’s standing and this works to the advantage 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 the open examination, they have to put in the surplus effort to compete with their peers from the forward communities’.

Performance in competitive examinations in higher educational institutes requires a great degree of hard work but merit is not solely of one’s own making, involves family, upbringing, schooling, fortune, gift of talent in one’s advancement. ’These examinations can only reflect the current competence of an individual but not the gamut of their potential, capabilities or excellence which are also shaped by lived experiences, subsequent training, and individual character’.

Therefore there is a need to reconceptualize the meaning of merit, it cannot be assessed only on the basis of a competitive examination rather Equality, fortitude, and resilience required to uplift oneself from conditions of deprivation are reflective of individual calibre.

The broader concept of equality involves not only its redistributive dimension but also recognizing the worth and dignity of every individual and this narrow definition of merit devoid of conditions and circumstances of an individual hinders the realization of substantive equality.

Reservation in PG Courses

Article 15(5) is a special provision for providing reservation in admission in educational institutes for the advancement of socially and educationally backward classes. It incorporates reservation in admission in UG courses as well as PG courses. Reservation in PG courses to a reasonable extent is not violative of the equality clause (as held in Saurabh Chaudhary v. UOI).

Backwardness does not simply disappear because a candidate has a graduation degree. A graduation degree cannot create parity between forwarding class and backward class even if it makes the graduate with economic mobility.

Reservation of 27% to OBC under AIQ Scheme

AIQ scheme enables the State-run medical and dental institutions to allocate seats to students across the country to compete on merits through an open examination. Scheme of AIQ seats was devised in Pradeep Jain v. Union Of India (1984 3 SCC 654) case, where it was held that reservation based on domicile/residence is constitutionally valid but did not hold that reservation in AIQ seats, is impermissible and held that domicile free seats shall be provided in state-run medical and dental institutions.

Regarding quantum of residence based reservation, it was held that there cannot be a wholesale i.e 100 % residence-based reservation, and a certain percentage of seats shall be filled by open merit by an all India Open examination without reservation based upon residence (Jagdish Saran v. Union Of India, 1980 AIR 820).

Providing reservation In AIQ is a policy decision of the Government subject to judicial review so the permission of the SC before providing reservation in AIQ seats is not required.

Conclusion

Social justice is the ultimate goal of the Indian Constitution. It involves not only doing redistributive equality rather also uplifting the backward communities who have been denied their fundamental rights by the forward classes. Class and Caste discrimination has been prevalent in India since independence which leads to social and ultimately educational backwardness. One such way to attain social justice is providing reservation to OBCs in admission in Medical colleges as enshrined under Article 15(4).

Therefore a balance has to be maintained in the society by adequately representing everyone considering their social and economic status and circumstances to achieve the Constitutional goal of substantive equality and it can and therefore, Reservation is not antithetical to merits and does not compromise with efficiency.


[1] (2009)17 SCC 705


  1. Law Library: Notes and Study Material for LLB, LLM, Judiciary and Entrance Exams
  2. Legal Bites Academy – Ultimate Test Prep Destination
Updated On 2022-02-09T19:08:58+05:30
Mayank Shekhar

Mayank Shekhar

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