June 26, 2024


Was the Patna HC right in striking down the reservation hike?

(Image credit: Patel95, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Reservation has been a hot-button issue in Bihar for a while. There was an intrinsic link between quotas for backward classes and the discussions about a caste census in the state. That was something Chief Minister Nitish Kumar wanted and eventually got. The state decided it should increase the reservation cap on jobs and education.

Recently, the Patna High Court struck down the 65% cap set by the state government. It’s a definitive blow to the state government. The court heard several petitions challenging the government’s move. Has the court done the right thing? Is the rationale correct?


Last November, the Bihar assembly passed a Bill to increase reservation for Backward Classes (BCs), Extremely Backward Classes (EBCs), Scheduled Castes (SCs), and Scheduled Tribes (STs) from the existing 50% to 65%. Combined with the 10% Economically Backward Class (EWS) quota, reservations in the state increased to 75%. That’s well above the 50% cap set by the Supreme Court.

The 50% rule goes back to 1963 when the Supreme Court stated that reservations were an exception or special provision under the Constitution and couldn’t be provided for more than 50% of the posts or seats. This was reaffirmed in 1990 in the Mandal Commission case as a binding rule and not just a matter of prudence.

The Bills in Bihar that facilitated this increase in educational institutions and government jobs were based on the landmark caste survey done by the state government. The survey’s results, tabled in October, showed that EBCs and OBCs comprised nearly 63% of the state’s population. Nitish Kumar himself belongs to the OBC Kurmi caste.

When the survey was released, the discussion then shifted to reservations. RJD Chief Lalu Prasad Yadav said reservations would be increased. The opposition BJP, on the other hand, called the survey an eyewash and faulty. It put them in a predicament for a couple of reasons. First, the Congress supported the idea of a survey. Second, the BJP had the Women’s Reservation Act, and the Congress demanded OBC reservation within this Act.

The Patna High Court’s decision has come at an interesting time for the state’s political landscape. Nitish Kumar is with the BJP now, who might not like him challenging the court’s decision.

The Congress has already put the word out on whether the Centre will support a challenge and if this issue will get air time in Parliament. As far as the court’s decision is concerned, was it the right call?

VIEW: Sound rationale by the court

The 50% cap imposed by the Supreme Court was based on the need to balance equality of opportunity and for adequate representation of backward classes. The thesis was this – no provision for reservation can be so high that the concept of equality gets lost in the shuffle. Exceptions can be made only in some extraordinary situations and special cases.

The government might make the case that caste data was used to raise the cap. However, this could be the wrong strategy. There are some inconsistencies. For example, the percentage composition of SCs and forward classes compared with their estimated decadal growth rates in the 2011 census. Also, a caste survey alone can’t be used. The court called for an examination of a caste’s overall economic and social status.

The court said that the state increased reservations mechanically by only taking into account the total population of backwards classes and the percentage of their representation in government services and educational institutions. It stated that the government’s rationale for ‘proportional representation’ was invalid and should’ve been ‘adequate representation’. Proportional representation was only valid when applied to various groups within the backward classes.

COUNTERVIEW: A wrong approach

The High Court’s decision is a blow to the state’s different community movements who’ve been fighting for reservations. When the 50% cap was breached last year, many saw some scope to realise their demands. It could lead to tensions within communities that will fight for their share within the OBC quota. The court’s decision is a strict application of the 50% rule.

Bihar is quite a backward state on most human and social development parameters. It’s unfortunate that the court limited its executive and legislative power to expand its social justice initiatives. Other states, particularly Tamil Nadu, have successfully increased their reservation cap. The court should’ve taken into consideration that people living in remote and far-flung areas are to be treated differently, given their limited education and employment opportunities.

The state government was within its right to pass the amendments for enhancing reservations based on the caste survey report. The court’s insistence on an analysis of the survey’s results by experts would constrain future affirmative action policies. The court observed that merit can’t be sacrificed completely. However, there’s no evidence that SC, ST, or OBC employees and students are less efficient or willing than those in the general category.

Reference Links:

  • Patna high court strikes down Bihar govt’s 65% reservation in jobs, education – Times of India
  • All about Bihar’s reservation hike law that Patna HC has struck down – Firstpost
  • In Bihar, reservation now at 75%. What about Supreme Court’s 50% cap? – Firstpost
  • From Bihar to Maharashtra, Reservations are Capped at 50%, But How Does Tamil Nadu Maintain a 69% Quota? – The Mooknayak
  • Explained: The Patna HC’s striking down of quota hike to 65 percent – The Leaflet
  • Here’s What the Patna HC’s Decision on Reservation Means for Bihar and Indian Politics – The Wire
  • Why raising the quota is not a solution to Bihar’s caste woes – New Indian Express

What is your opinion on this?
(Only subscribers can participate in polls)

a) The Patna HC was right in striking down the reservation hike.

b) The Patna HC was wrong in striking down the reservation hike.


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