In the Name of Merit: An Overemphasis on Merit

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Why in News?

  • The Indian Constitution embodies the principle of social justice, allowing the state to implement special provisions for the underprivileged.
  • Despite the political motives often driving the expansion of reservation policies, the judiciary has frequently intervened, emphasising the need for merit and efficiency in administration.
  • Therefore, considering the recent Patna High Court order on 65% reservation, it is important to explore the complexities of India's reservation policies, judicial responses, and the underlying tensions between constitutional mandates and socio-political realities.

Indian Judiciary’s Response to Reservation Policies

  • The Strict Scrutiny Doctrine
    • The strict scrutiny doctrine employed by the Indian judiciary mandatesthat any policy affecting fundamental rights must be narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling governmental interest.
    • In the context of reservation policies, this doctrine has been used to assess whether the reservations are justified, necessary, and whether they disproportionately affect other groups.
    • This rigorous standard has led to the invalidation of several attempts by state governments to extend reservations to various communities.
  • The 50 Percent Cap on Reservations
    • The judiciary's steadfast adherence to the 50 percent ceiling for reservations is another critical aspect of its response.
    • This cap was first articulated in the M R Balaji case of 1962, where the Supreme Court deemed that reservations exceeding 50 percent would violate the right to equality.
    • This principle has been reaffirmed in numerous cases, such as Devadasan (1964), N M Thomas (1976), and Indra Sawhney (1992).
    • The judiciary has maintained that while exceptions might be made for remote or underdeveloped areas, the 50 percent limit is generally sacrosanct.
  • Recent Verdict of Patna High Court on 65% Reservation in Bihar
    • It struck down the 65 percent reservation in Bihar based on the 2023 Caste Survey.
    • The court held that the Nitish Kumar government's rationale—that the Backward Classes constitute a major part of the state's population and are underrepresented in unreserved categories—was insufficient.
    • The judgment reiterated that the term proportionate representation is alien to Articles 15 and 16, which emphasise "inadequacy of representation" rather than strict proportionality.
  • Exceptions and Nuances
    • Despite the rigid application of the 50 percent rule, the Supreme Court has recognised the need for flexibility in certain contexts.
    • In Indra Sawhney, the court acknowledged that this limit need not be religiously adhered to in regions that are far-flung or outside the national mainstream.
    • However, the Patna High Court did not extend this leniency to Bihar, despite its significant socio-economic challenges.
    • The court's decision underscores the need for governments to present compelling evidence and context-specific arguments to justify deviations from established limits.

The Reservation Debates on Proportionate vs. Adequate Representation and the Efficiency and Merit Argument

  • Proportionate vs. Adequate Representation
    • The judiciary's emphasis on adequacy of representation over proportionate representation is rooted in the landmark Indra Sawhney case of 1992.
    • The Supreme Court in this case opined that adequate representation cannot be read as proportionate representation, suggesting that reservations should aim to correct significant underrepresentation rather than mirror the exact demographic composition of backward classes.
    • This interpretation has guided subsequent judgments, including the Patna High Court's ruling on Bihar's reservation policy.
  • The Efficiency and Merit Argument
    • Another significant judicial concern is the potential impact of reservations on administrative efficiency and merit.
    • Courts have often cited the need to balance affirmative action with the maintenance of standards in public administration.
    • The Patna High Court, for instance, noted that merit should not be completely sacrificed.
    • This view reflects a broader judicial apprehension that excessive reservations might undermine the quality of governance.
    • However, critics argue that this perspective is based on unproven assumptions and fails to recognise the broader social benefits of inclusive policies.

Judicial Flexibility and Recent Trends on Reservation Policies

  • Recent judgments, such as the SC’s decision in the EWS case (2023) and Justice D Y Chandrachud's observations in B K Pavitra II (2019), indicate a gradual shift towards a more nuanced understanding of merit and efficiency.
  • Justice Chandrachud's call for redefining merit in terms of social good highlights the judiciary's evolving approach.
  • Its emphases inclusivity and social equity over rigid adherence to traditional notions of merit.


  • The Indian judiciary's response to reservation policiesillustrates the ongoing struggle to balance constitutional principles with the practicalities of achieving social justice.
  • While the strict scrutiny doctrine and the 50 percent cap have shaped judicial intervention, recent trends suggest a growing recognition of the need for more flexible and context-sensitive approaches.

As India continues to grapple with deep-seated social inequalities, the judiciary's role in shaping and refining reservation policies remains crucial.

Q) What was the main issue addressed in the Indra Sawhney Judgment of 1992?

The main issue addressed in the Indra Sawhney Judgment of 1992 was the validity and scope of reservations in public employment under Article 16(4) of the Indian Constitution. The Supreme Court examined whether the government could implement a 27% quota for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in central government jobs, and the judgement sought to clarify the criteria for identifying backward classes and the extent of permissible reservations.

Q) What significant principles were established by the Supreme Court in the Indra Sawhney Judgement?

The Indra Sawhney Judgment of 1992 established several significant principles regarding the reservation system in India. Firstly, the Supreme Court set a 50% cap on reservations in public employment and educational institutions, which could only be exceeded in exceptional circumstances. Secondly, the court introduced the concept of the "creamy layer," which excludes economically advanced individuals within the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) from availing reservation benefits, ensuring that the truly disadvantaged segments benefit from affirmative action.

Source:The Indian Express