Interrogating the false merit-reservation binary

News:  Recently the Supreme Court has upheld the admissions notice of NEET-2021 in view of implications on public health due to delay in medical admissions and hearing on the validity of the ₹8 lakh limit is listed for March.

What was the case?

The case was related to resolution of the issues around the implementation of Other Backward Classes (OBC) and economically weaker sections (EWS) quotas in the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET)-All India Quota (AIQ) admissions to medical colleges.

AIQ is a judicially created category where 15% of undergraduate seats and 50% of post graduate seats are filled on a domicile-free, all-India basis.

The Government had decided to extend the existing Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe reservations within this category to provide for OBC reservations.

However, the petitioners had challenged the order on the grounds that the implementation of OBC reservation would affect professional merit.

Moreover, they have also challenged the EWS reservation because of ₹8 lakh income limit for EWS reservation.

What is the significance of the judgement?

First, this judgement has the potential to settle the merit versus reservation debate. The judgement has given more importance to substantive equality rather than formal equality. The intent of the framers was to remove structural barriers that prevented the realization of equality of opportunity.

Second, the court has said that individual difference cannot be used to negate the role of reservation in remedying the structural disadvantage suffered by some groups.

Third, the court has reiterated that reservations under Article 16(4) is not an exception but an extension of the principle of equality under Article 16(1). In K.C. Vasanth Kumar vs State of Karnataka (1985), the court had criticized the purely economic understanding of reservation and the rigid nature of the socio-cultural institution of caste.

Hence, reservations are crucial for achieving the goal of equality of opportunity and status amongst all citizens.

Fourth, it has also recognized the role of cultural capital. The cultural capital ensures that a child is unconsciously trained by the environment to take up higher education or high posts based on family‘s standing.

Hence, it is a disadvantage for first-generation learners and for individuals who come from communities whose traditional occupations are not helping them to perform well in open examination.

Fifth, more focus on merit results in exclusion, legitimize community linkages and reaffirms social hierarchies. The judgement has relied on the judgement in B.K. Pavitra vs State of Karnataka.

It says that efficiency of administration is not an ideal which can be measured by the performance of a qualified open category candidate.

Sixth, the judgement has also questioned examination as a measure of merit. It says that there is an indirect and weak link between what examinations measure and what tasks the candidate is supposed to perform. Hence, exams can only reflect the current competence of an individual but not the range of their potential, capabilities or excellence.

What is the way forward?

First, EWS reservation has fixed the same income limits for ‘creamy layer’ OBC and EWS, but it has not considered the question of cultural capital. Hence constitutionality of it has to be reviewed by the judiciary.

Second, efficiency of administration must be defined in an inclusive sense. The diverse segments of society should find representation in governance. Hence, there is a need to rectify prejudicial stereotypes.

Third, there is a need to redesign examinations to make them free of linguistic, class, school boards, and regional bias. It will help in democratizing access to higher education.

Fourth, the judgement has recognized the existence of social privileges that hide behind merit. Hence, it highlights the need of caste census that can reveal privilege accumulation and warn us against conservative policy demands.

Source: This post is based on the article “Interrogating the false merit-reservation binary” published in The Hindu on 5th Feb 2022.

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