Scheme of reservation for the economically weaker sections
On 9th January 2019, the Parliament of India enacted the Constitution (103rd Amendment Act,2019) and authorized the State to provide reservation for Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) among the general category candidates with the aim to provide 10% reservation in higher education and government employment.
Who comes under the “Economically Weaker Sections”?
Economically Weaker Section (EWS) in India is a subcategory of people belonging to the General Category having an annual family income less than ₹8 lakhs and who absolutely do not belong to any category such as SC/ST/OBC. If a candidate who doesn't fall under castes recognised as SC/ST/OBC by the Govt. of India & his/her annual family income is below the prescribed limit of ₹8 lakhs by Government of India (or as prescribed by state govt in the respective states), then he/she will be recognised as EWS category
The Government, in the Amendment Act of 2019, laid down certain eligibility conditions for candidates to be able to claim reservation under this new category. The definition of Family in EWS reservation means: -"The person who seeks benefit of reservation, his/her parents and siblings below the age of 18 years as also his/her spouse and children below the age of 18 years".
Candidate's annual family income must be less than Rs. 8 lakhs per annum.
His family must not own more than 5 acres of agriculture land.
The residential flat area should be below 1000 square ft.
The residential plot's area should be below 100 square yards if in a notified municipality sector.
The residential plot's area should be below 200 square yards if in a non-notified municipality sector.
What does the “Economically Weaker Sections Quota Act” amends in the Indian Constitution?
The Constitution (103 Amendment) Act, 2019, was introduced in the Constitution by amending Articles 15 and 16 and adding clauses 15(6) and 16(6), empowering the State governments to provide reservation on the basis of economic disadvantage.
Key provisions of the amendment
Amendment to Article 15 (Reservation in Educational Institutions):
As per the new amendment Article 15(6) enables the State to make special provision for the growth of economically weaker section of the society, including reservation in educational institutions. It states that such reservation can be made in any education institutional together with aided and unaided private institutions, excluding minority educational institutions covered under Article 30(1)
Under Article 15(6)(a), the benefits of the EWS reservation, extend only to the candidates belonging to General category which were, prior to the said amendment, not covered by the existing scheme for reservation. This reservation to the economically backward classes is based upon the concept of social backwardness.
Furthermore, Article 15(6)(b), provision was made for reserving 10% seats for EWS category in Central Government Educational Institutions and private educational institutes, both aided and unaided, with the exception of minority educational institutions under Article 30. This 10% ceiling is individualistic of the ceilings on subsisting reservations.
Amendment to Article 16 (Reservation in Jobs):
an amendment to the Article 16 permitted the government to reserve up to 10% of all government posts for the EWS. Also, the reservation of up to 10% for the EWS was made in addition to the existing reservation cap of 50% reservation for SC, ST and OBCs.
Is the reservation based on economic status an apt way of creating equality?
It is the duty of the government to provide equality of status and opportunity in India. Reservation is one of the tools against social oppression and injustice against certain classes. However, is the current system of unequal treatment the only way out in a welfare-nation?
Argument favouring the reservation based on economic criteria: For the first time, the economic class has been constitutionally recognized as a vulnerable section through the 103rd Amendment Act. It can be termed as a departure from traditional centrality of caste in deciding affirmative action. However, in changing circumstances, caste, while a prominent cause of injustice in India, should not be the sole determinant of the backwardness of a group of individuals. In Ram Singh v. Union of India (2015) , SC asserted that, “social deficiencies may exist beyond the concept of caste. Hence, there is a need to evolve new yardsticks to move away from caste-centric definition of backwardness”. Moreover, Politically, the class issues through years have been overpowered by caste issues. This has created a sense of dissatisfaction amongst communities with similar or poorer economic status but excluded from caste-based reservation.
Argument against the reservation based on economic criteria: Contrary to equality norm, to balance the equality of opportunity of backward classes ‘against’ the right to equality of everyone else, a cap of 50% was put on the reserved seats. In M. Nagaraj v. Union of India (2006), a Constitution Bench ruled that equality is part of the basic structure of the Constitution. The court observed that the 50 % limit is a constitutional requirement without which the structure of equality of opportunity. Moreover, the current definition of EWS is that it is too broad and would include large sections of population. There may also be demand from sections of the SCs/STs and OBCs to introduce similar sub-categorization, based on economic criteria, within their respective quotas.
Is there a need for such reservation in India?
Before the Constitution amendment Act came into force, the reservations in India accounted for a total of 49.5%. At present, with the 10% extra reservation for EWS, it accounts for total of 59.5% reservations. 7.5%, 15%, and 27% quotas are reserved for Scheduled Tribes, Scheduled Castes, and Other Backward Classes respectively. The Supreme Court in the case Indira Sawhney v. UOI (1992)  struck down a provision that earmarked 10% for the economically backward on the grounds that the Constitution only provides for addressing social backwardness. The bench was of the view that Reservation is not a poverty alleviation scheme. And now, with the EWS Quota Act, only 40.5% of seats are allocated in educational institutions/jobs based on the merit of candidates. As pointed by Supreme Court, increase in reservations would compromise the merit.
Reservation helps in uplifting backward classes. However, reservation is just one of the methods for social upliftment. There are many other methods like providing scholarships, funds, coaching, and other welfare schemes. In India, quotas have become caste-based reservation instead of class-based reservation as otherwise provided by the constitution.
The benefits of the reservation have successively been enjoyed only by a few communities, excluding the truly deserving ones. Even 73 years after independence, the demand for reservation has only increased. And Now, with the introduction of economic criteria for reservation, in addition to the caste-criteria which already existed, things have become more complicated.
Reacting to the passage of the Act, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, it is a landmark moment in the nation’s history and an effective measure that ensures justice for all sections of society.
The then Finance minister Late Shri Arun Jaitley, building the case for the 10 per cent quota, said, “If two individuals are not equal due to birth or for economic reasons, then they cannot be treated equally. “Unequals cannot be treated equally,” he said. He further contended that the 50% cap on reservations imposed by the Supreme Court was only for caste-based reservations, and the Economically Weaker Section (EWS) reservation won’t be impacted by it.
Union Social Justice and Empowerment Minister Thaawarchand Gehlot said the similar state laws for EWS quota were quashed by Courts because there was no provision for economic reservation in the Constitution before. Now, the Law will not be struck down by the Supreme Court if challenged as it has been brought by making required provisions in the Constitution.
The 103rd Constitutional Amendment Act, 2019 seems to be a carefully drafted policy aimed at gaining maximum political vote bank during the general elections, and which has indeed brought gains to the Bhartiya Janta Party. Constitutionally and legally, it does not seem maintainable as it violates the basic structure of the Constitution.
As far as identification of beneficiaries of the new quota is concerned, the criteria are arbitrary as it excludes almost nobody, given the high-income limit. It majorly affects all the categories but the EWS by reducing the competitive avenues accessible to them. Empirically, it does not seem justifiable as candidates from EWS are already well represented in higher educational institutions and Government job opportunities.
Is it high time that the Indian political class overcame its tendency of continually expanding the scope of reservation in pursuit of electoral gains, and realises that it is not the only solution for problems like poverty that require appropriate policy interventions rather than reservation? It is this political tendency that Dr. B.R. Ambedkar warned us against. It would defeat the original motive of granting reservation as foreseen by the founding fathers of our constitution, that of correcting the unpropitious effects of the oppressive caste system.