New Delhi: Late on Tuesday evening the Lok Sabha passed the 124th Constitutional Amendment Bill seeking to provide a maximum of 10 percent reservation for the economically weaker among the general category. This will be in addition to the quota already provided to the socially and educationally backward classes, the scheduled castes and the scheduled tribes.
As many as 323 members voted in support of bill and only three voted against, underlining the cross-party support the politically crucial bill elicited.
The PM hailed the passing of the bill in the House as "landmark moment" in the nation's history.
"We are resolutely committed to the principle of ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas.’ It is our endeavour to ensure that every poor person, irrespective of caste or creed gets to lead a life of dignity, and gets access to all possible opportunities," the PM tweeted after the passage of the bill.
The bill which gives shape to what Narasimha Rao government proposed 28 years ago provides reservation for the economically weaker sections of the society in higher educational institutions, including private institutions irrespective of being aided or unaided by the state.
The new insertion in Article 15 which prohibits discrimination on the grounds of race, sex or religion is the clause (6) which states that apart from socially and educationally backward classes, SCs and STs, the economically weaker section would be given reservation of maximum 10 percent in education and public employment.
The other amendment was the insertion of Clause 6 in Article 16 which authorised the state for granting reservation to EWS in appointments or posts subject to a maximum of 10 percent.
However, the constitutional amendment bill is silent on the definition of economically weaker section and leaves it to the states to notify conditions for the same from time to time with regard to family income and other factors of economic disadvantages.
The key issues which cropped up during the debate of the bill primarily hovered around (a) how would the amendment bill stand the test the of law when the Constitution itself is silent on reservation for the economically weaker sections of the society, (b) how would this 10% reservation not violate the 50% cap as spelt out in the Indira Sawhney verdict, (c) why the government does not push for the establishment of the All India Judicial Services and include reservations in judicial selections too,(d) and lastly, why was the government not stating the empirical evidence behind ushering in such a reservation.
Thawar Chand Gehlot, Union Minister of Social Justice, attempted to allay concerns regarding the bill in the lower House by stating that previous attempts by states or the PV Narasimha Rao government to bring in such a reservation for the open category had failed as there was no constitutional provision to back such a demand.
The Union Minister also stated that he was “fully confident” that the bill will not attract the ire of the Supreme Court because a constitutional amendment was being brought in before bringing about such a reservation.
One of the primary concerns with the bill was that whether it violates the basic structure of the constitution? Union Minister of Finance Arun Jaitely responded to this by stating that “socialist, as a word, was not a part of the first draft of the constitution and it was that justice will be meted out which will be social, economic and political guaranteeing equality of opportunity,” and thereby did not violate the basic structure.
Further, he stated that equal opportunity was being granted through affirmative action by the BJP-led government.
Opposition parties had questioned as to why this reservation would violate the 50 percent ceiling and hence could be struck down by the courts.
However, Jaitely maintained that when states tried to do a similar thing it was “without a source of power” and that after the “Indira Sawhney verdict it was stated that social and educational backwardness is determinant of the caste, but there was no provision for economically weaker section in the constitution. Hence it always failed the legal test,” said Jaitely adding that “the 50% cap by the court is only for Article 16 (4) stating caste based reservations.”
While Congress supported the passage of the bill, KV Thomas, Congress leader questioned the discrepancy of why 10% reservation would be granted to the aided and unaided private educational institutions whereas for SC, ST and OBC, it was only for the aided institutes.
Ram Vilas Paswan, however, stated three clear demands where it stated that, reservation ceiling should be taken up to 60 percent and be put under the Ninth schedule and also demanded EWS reservation in All India Judicial Services.
The TRS, while supporting the bill, questioned as to who was the economically weaker section and pinned the blame on successive governments for depriving the population of infrastructure which would enable them to achieve economic growth and that all the opportunity was lost as the BJP and the Congress attempted to settle scores with each other.
However, the Samajwadi Party made a strong allegation on the ruling government for burying the data on caste census and thereby asked them to conduct one.
“We have been pressing for caste census, we know that report is ready because backwards are more than 60%. Based on their population give up to 100% reservation,” said Dharmendra Yadav from the SP.
Bhartruhari Mahtab of Biju Janata Dal pointed out flaws in the bill and stated that the economic condition may fluctuate.
“Someone who was rich yesterday may be poor today,” said the BJD while supporting the bill.
Asaduddin Owaisi on the other hand pointed out that the Constitution does not recognise economic backwardness as criterion for reservation.
“This bill is a fraud on the constitution. It’s an insult to BR Ambedkar. The original purpose of reservation was to give social justice and remove social and educational backwardness. The constitution does not recognize economically weaker section. Has the ‘janeudharis’ (Brahmins) ever suffered police beatings, false cases, etcc- unfortunately its only on Dalits, SC, ST. Where is the empirical evidence?” questioned the AIMM leader.
The bill will now have to pass through the Rajya Sabha hurdle as the session of the upper house has been extended by a day.
Jaitely has maintained that the bill will not require a ratification by the states as it amends the Part III of the Indian Constitution dealing with the fundamental rights.