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In a recent ruling, Patna High Court set aside the Bihar government’s laws that increased the reservation for Backward Classes, Extremely Backward Classes, Scheduled Castes, and Scheduled Tribes from 50% to 65% in jobs and educational institutions declaring it to be ultra vires in nature and being violative of equality under the Indian Constitution. 

This has ignited debates and legal discussions. Let’s delve into the legalities surrounding this landmark judgment and explore its implications.

BACKGROUND: THE QUOTA INCREASE                                                   

In November 2023, the Bihar legislative assembly unanimously passed two bills: 

  1. Bihar Reservation of Vacancies in Posts and Services (for SC, ST, EBC, and OBC) Amendment Bill 
  2. Bihar (In Admission in Educational Institutions) Reservation Amendment Bill. 

These bills aimed to increase the reservation quota from the existing 50% to 65%, leaving the remaining 35% for the general category.

REVISED RESERVATION PERCENTAGES                                                  

The revised reservation percentages included: 

  • 20% for scheduled castes
  • 2% for scheduled tribes
  • 18% for backward classes
  • 25% for extremely backward classes
  • 10% for economically weaker sections (EWS) among the upper castes. 

CHALLENGE AND JUDICIAL SCRUTINY                                                       

The legislation faced opposition through writ petition, with petitioners questioning its constitutional validity. The high court division bench of Chief Justice K Vinod Chandran and Justice Harish Kumar heard the case. But what were the key legal arguments?

1. Legislative Powers and Equality

Advocate Dinu Kumar, representing the petitioners, contended that the hike in reservation was beyond the state’s authority. He cited Article 14 of the Constitution, emphasizing that the legislation violated equal rights. Additionally, abolishing the 10% quota for Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) was violative of section 15(6)(b) of Article 14.

2. Proportion vs. Representation

The court considered the caste-based survey conducted in Bihar, which revealed the proportion of different castes in the population. Unlike previous approaches based on representation, the new provision adjusted quotas based on this survey.

3. Precedent and the 50% Cap

Advocate Kumar invoked the Indira Sawhney case, where the Supreme Court capped the upper limit of reservation at 50%.

The Supreme Court in this case stated that reservations for OBCs, SCs, and STs should not total more than 50% of all available seats. This limit was set up to strike a balance between the objectives of giving historically underrepresented groups opportunities and guaranteeing that a sizeable portion of seats remained open for the general category.

IMPLICATIONS AND CONCLUSION                                                          

The Patna High Court’s decision strikes a balance between social justice and constitutional principles. While the state’s intent to uplift marginalized groups is commendable, the court’s role is to ensure that such measures align with the Constitution. The ruling emphasizes the need for thoughtful legislation that respects both equity and legal norms.

In summary, the court’s verdict reverberates beyond Bihar, prompting discussions on reservation policies across India. It underscores the delicate balance between affirmative action and constitutional safeguards, leaving us with critical questions about social justice and equal opportunities.

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