As the Supreme Court considers the validity of the 103rd constitutional amendment granting 10% reservation to economically weaker sections (EWS), this article examines the EWS threshold criteria from the standpoint of the Principle of affirmative action for the poor.
GS Paper 2: Government policies and interventions for development in various sectors and issues arising out of their design and implementation.
Is there empirical support for and justification for the reservation policy allocating a 10% quota for the economically weaker sections of the “general category?” Analyze critically. (250 words)
- Amendment: The 10% EWS quota was introduced by inserting Article 15 (6) and Article 16 into the 103rd Constitution (Amendment) Act, 2019. (6)
- Article 15 (6) is added to provide reservations to economically disadvantaged groups for admission to educational institutions, including private educational institutions aided or unaided by the State, other than minority educational institutions referred to in Article 30. (1).
- Article 16 (6) is added to provide reservations in government positions for people from economically disadvantaged groups.
- Scope: The EWS provisions apply to economically disadvantaged groups other than backward classes, scheduled castes, and scheduled tribes.
- EWS Detection Conditions: The criterion of income. Beneficiary’s gross family income is Rs 8 lakh.
- Land requirements: A minimum of five acres of agricultural land.
- Property size: In notified/unnotified municipalities, a residential flat of no more than 1,000 square feet or a residential plot of no more than 100/200 square yards.
The issues under consideration by the SC
- Youth for Equality has filed a writ petition alleging that the 103rd Amendment violates the basis structure doctrine, as follows:
- Economic deprivation: Whether the EWS Act is said to violate the Constitution’s basic structure by allowing the state to make special provisions, including reservation, based on economic criteria.
- An earlier government notification providing 10% reservation to economically disadvantaged sections of society was overturned in 1992 in Indra Sawhney v. UOI.
- Whether this 103rd amendment violates the state’s limit by allowing the state to make special provisions for admission to private unaided institutions.
- Exclusion bias: Whether the EWS criteria violate the constitution by “excluding the SEBCs (Socially and Educationally Backward Classes)/ OBCs (Other Backward Classes)/ SCs (Scheduled Castes)/ STs (Scheduled Tribes) from the scope of EWS reservation.”
Justification of the state
- The government claims that the 103rd Constitutional Amendment does not violate the fundamental structure of the Constitution for the following reasons:
- The EWS quota does not interfere with reservations for other castes such as SCs, STs, and OBCs.
- The state has the authority to take affirmative action to raise the poor above the general population.
Arguments in opposition to the EWS reservation
• Historical injustices: The Constitution’s quotas were intended to ensure adequate representation for those historically disadvantaged because of their caste identity, not as a means of alleviating poverty.
• Perpetuity: According to critics, caste and its oppressions are permanent and passed down through generations, whereas poverty is temporary.
• In violation of constitutional provisions: The 10% EWS quota is in addition to the 50% reservation for SCs, STs, and OBCs, which exceeds the reservation limit set by the Supreme Court in the Indra Sawhney Judgment in 1992.
• Deceitful act: Citizens who are educationally and socially backward, as well as SCs and STs, are not eligible for reservation, even if they are economically disadvantaged.
Investigating the EWS income threshold scenario
- A balanced picture: If the quota is 10%, the line should be drawn so that it only covers the poorest 10% of the population.
- Broad coverage: The EWS quota is extended to people whose family’s gross annual income is less than Rs 8 lakh, i.e. a family with a monthly income of around Rs 66,000 is eligible. A family with this income level, on the other hand, would be in the top 10%.
- Exemplification: The 2011 Census counted 248.8 million households for a population of slightly more than 1. 2 billion, resulting in an average household size of 5.
- Assuming a family of five, an annual household income of Rs 8 lakh equates to a per person income of slightly more than Rs 13,000 per month
- However, according to the most recent NSSO survey from 2011-12, the top-most income slice is more than Rs 2,625 per person per month in rural areas and Rs 6,015 in urban areas, both of which are well below the Rs 8 lakh mark. Nonetheless, this top slice contains only 5% of all households.
- Income tax data: According to official data, approximately 28 million individuals declared gross incomes of more than Rs 4 lakh in 2018-19.
- Assuming two such individuals in each family on average, approximately 1. 4 crore families would be over the Rs 8 lakh cut-off, corresponding to roughly 5% of Indian families
- Not-so-poor: According to government data, the average per capita income in 2019-20, the year the EWS quota was implemented, was around Rs 1. 3 lakh. It works out to Rs. 6.5 lakh for a family of five.
- As a result, a household earning Rs 8 lakh per year would be significantly above the national average and far from poor.
Investigating other EWS thresholds
- Land holding threshold: According to the EWS Act 2019, a family must not own or possess agricultural land of 5 acres or more in order to be classified under its statute.
- However, the 2015-16 Agricultural Census revealed that 86.2% of all land holdings in India were less than five acres in size
- Residential flat area: In order to be classified as EWS, a family must not own or possess a residential flat of 1000 square feet or more.
- According to the NSSO report on housing conditions in 2012, even the richest 20% of the population had houses with an average floor area of nearly exactly 500 square feet, barely half the imposed ceiling. Thus, under the EWS quota, at least 80%, if not well over 90%, of the population would be eligible.
Other drawbacks of the EWS classification criteria
- Incomplete: The EWS criteria expressly exclude those covered by quotas for socially backward groups such as SC, ST, and OBCs.
- Anomalous situation: The argument is that these sections already have quotas, but under this argument, the most deprived (both from historically disadvantaged groups and poor) will have to compete with people richer than them to access the quota, whereas the poor from the upper caste will only have to compete among themselves.
A quota for the poor makes sense, but only if it is more stringent than the current criteria. This entails a 10% quota within a quota for the SC, ST, OBC, and ‘open’ categories.