New Delhi: The Union government on Thursday told the Supreme Court that it would revisit the limit of Rs 8 lakh annual income as the limit for persons to be eligible for the Economically Weaker Section (EWS) reservation, saying counselling for NEET post-graduate medical courses will be postponed by four further weeks to accommodate the exercise.
The government’s decision to revisit the limit comes after the Supreme Court in previous hearings questioned how the Rs 8 lakh figure was arrived at, commenting that a number cannot be pulled out of thin air and should be based on scientific reasoning.
According to news agency PTI, the Union government told the top court that a committee would be constituted to ascertain the criteria and the exercise would be completed in four weeks.
A bench of Justices D.Y. Chandrachud, Surya Kant and Vikram Nath was informed by solicitor general Tushar Mehta along with additional solicitor general K.M. Nataraj that the Union government has “taken a considered decision to revisit the criteria for determining the economically weaker sections in terms of the provisions of the explanation to Article 15 of the constitution inserted by the Constitution (103rd Amendment) Act, 2019”.
The top court also recorded the submission that a period of four weeks would be required for this exercise and pending its conclusion, the date for counselling shall stand postponed because of the assurance which was tendered at an earlier stage of proceedings.
The apex court was hearing a batch of pleas filed by students challenging the Union government’s and the Medical Counselling Committee (MCC)’s July 29 notification providing 27% reservation for Other Backward Class (OBC) and 10% for EWS category in the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET-PG) admissions for medical courses for the current academic year.
According to PTI, Justice Kant observed that the EWS quota is a “very enabling and progressive kind of reservation” and said all states should support the Union government in its endeavour.
The bench again reiterated that it was not going into policy matters but was raising the question of how the category is determined. This should be done in a scientific manner, the bench said, appreciating the Union government for deciding to revisit the earlier criteria.
Senior advocate Arvind Datar, appearing for the petitioners (students), said since counselling has already been pushed back several times, the Union government should push the implementation of the EWS quota to the next academic year. Counselling for the current academic year should be allowed to go on, he submitted.
When the bench asked Mehta whether the implementation could be pushed, the solicitor general said that the government has taken a decision to implement the 103rd constitutional amendment from the current academic year and pushing it back should only be a last resort. He said that if the criteria is determined earlier than four weeks, the government will inform the court.
The bench told Datar that four weeks is not unreasonable and it doesn’t want to push the government to do it quicker as the criteria may be fixed in an unscientific and haphazard manner, according to PTI.
Advocate Shashank Ratnoo, appearing on behalf of some OBC candidates, requested that the application of reservation to OBC students should not be deferred as the Centre is planning to revisit the EWS criteria.
The bench said that it has not said anything about OBC students and is not disposing of the petition.
It then recorded the submission of Mehta and posted the matter for further hearing on January 6.
On October 25, the Centre had assured the top court that the counselling process of NEET-PG examination will not commence till the top court decides the challenge to the MCC notification.
The assurance came after some students mentioned before the court that as per the schedule announced by the director-general of Health Services, the counselling process for NEET-PG was to commence from October 25.
On October 21, the top court had asked the Union government if it would like to revisit the limit of Rs 8 lakh annual income to determine the EWS category and sought answers to some pointed questions on the issue.
The top court had clarified that it is not embarking into the policy domain but is only trying to ascertain whether constitutional principles have adhered or not.
It had asked the Union government whether any exercise was undertaken before fixing the limit and whether the Major Gen (retd) SR Sinho commission report of 2010 was considered before ascertaining the criteria.
The Sinho commission was constituted by the UPA government in 2010 and recommended welfare measures for the EWS category, including reservation.
The Union government had said that the commission’s report was one of the basis for determining the criteria but after that several deliberations were held and other factors were also taken into account.
The court also asked the Union government that since Rs 8 lakh is the income limit to determine the creamy layer in the OBC category and EWS, whether it would be arbitrary to provide a similar income limit. The latter “has no social and educational backwardness”, the court observed.
The court had even considered the possiblity of staying the notification, but decided against such a move.
The bench had said that as per the explanation in the 103rd constitution amendment, the criteria for EWS should be notified by state governments. So how can the Union government notify a uniform EWS criterion for the whole of the country, it asked.