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EWS quota challenge referred to Constitution Bench

Topics Covered: Indian Constitution- historical underpinnings, evolution, features, amendments, significant provisions and basic structure.

EWS quota challenge referred to Constitution Bench:


Context:

The Supreme Court has referred to a five-judge Bench the “substantial question of law” whether grant of 10% reservation to economically weaker sections of the society is unconstitutional and violates the 50% ceiling cap on quota declared by the court itself.

What does the reference mean?

A reference to a larger Bench means that the legal challenge is an important one.

  • As per Article 145(3) of the Constitution, “the minimum number of Judges who are to sit for the purpose of deciding any case involving a substantial question of law as to the interpretation of this Constitution” shall be five.
  • The Supreme Court rules of 2013 also say that writ petitions that allege a violation of fundamental rights will generally be heard by a bench of two judges unless it raises substantial questions of law. In that case, a five-judge bench would hear the case.

What are the grounds of challenge?

The law was challenged primarily on two grounds.

  1. First, it violates the Basic Structure of the Constitution. This argument stems from the view that the special protections guaranteed to socially disadvantaged groups are part of the Basic Structure and that the 103rd Amendment departs from this by promising special protections on the sole basis of economic status. Although there is no exhaustive list of what forms the Basic Structure, any law that violates it is understood to be unconstitutional.
  2. Second, it violates the SC’s 1992 ruling in Indra Sawhney & Ors v Union of India, which upheld the Mandal Report and capped reservations at 50%. In the ruling, the court held that economic backwardness cannot be the sole criterion for identifying backward class.

What’s the issue?

The economic reservation was introduced in the Constitution by amending Articles 15 and 16 and adding clauses empowering the state governments to provide reservation on the basis of economic backwardness.

  • The validity of the Constitutional Amendment was challenged, saying the 50% quota limit was part of the Basic Structure of the Constitution.
  • A three-judge bench had refused to stay the implementation of the Constitution (103rd Amendment) Act, which provides the 10% quota.

How centre defends this move?

The Centre had argued that it was every State’s prerogative to provide 10% economic reservation in State government jobs and admissions in State-run education institutions. Whether or not to provide reservation to the economically weaker section (EWS) of the society for appointment in State government jobs and for admission to State government educational institutions, as per provisions of the newly inserted Articles 15(6) and 16(6) of the Constitution, is to be decided by the State government concerned.

  • The government also argued that under Article 46 of the Constitution, part of Directive Principles of State Policy, it has a duty to protect the interests of economically weaker sections.
  • Countering the claims that the amendment violates the Indra Sawhney principle, the government relied on a 2008 ruling— Ashok Kumar Thakur v Union of India, in which the SC upheld the 27% quota for OBCs. The argument is that the court accepted that the definition of OBCs was not made on the sole criterion of caste but a mix of caste and economic factors, to prove that there need not a sole criterion for according reservation.

What is a constitution bench?

Article 145(3) says at least five judges need to hear cases that involve “a substantial question of law as to the interpretation” of the Constitution, or any reference under Article 143, which deals with the power of the President of India to consult the Supreme Court.

  • But this doesn’t mean constitution benches can’t be larger. For example, nine judges were on the bench that unanimously declared privacy to be a fundamental right in August 2017. There have also been seven and 13-judge benches.

InstaLinks:

Prelims Link:

  1. Articles 143 and 145(3) are related to?
  2. Articles 15(6) and 16(6) of the Constitution- overview.
  3. Ashok Kumar Thakur v Union of India case is related to?
  4. What is basic structure of the constitution?
  5. Supreme Court judgment in Indira Sawhney case.

Mains Link:

Is the reservation policy earmarking a 10% quota for the economically weaker sections of the “general category” empirically founded and justifiable? Critically analyse.

Sources: the Hindu.