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Supreme Court to consider urgent hearing of EWS quota case

CJI says court will try to adjust schedule after plea by Centre

Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana on Tuesday indicated the Supreme Court will try to urgently list for hearing a case raising questions on the ₹8 lakh income criterion followed to identify economically weaker sections (EWS) of the society for extending reservation benefits.

Chief Justice agreed to consider an early listing after Solicitor-General Tushar Mehta, in an oral mentioning, fervently pressed the court to accommodate the case on January 5 itself.

This is the second time in as many days the Centre has mentioned the case for an early listing.

January 3 — the very day the court reopened after Christmas holidays — saw Mr. Mehta plead with Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, who is heading the Bench for the EWS case, to hear the case urgently.

Appearing before the CJI’s Bench on Tuesday, Mr. Mehta said NEET counselling was suspended since late November because of the questions raised about the criteria in the EWS quota. Medical admissions were getting delayed, and the issue had to be resolved quickly.

Resident doctors in Delhi had recently organised a massive protest over the delay in the counselling schedule, leading to violence.

Mr. Mehta submitted to the court that the doctors were rightly agitated about their future prospects. He urged the CJI to list the case on January 5.

Chief Justice Ramana said the court’s Benches had already been fixed for the entire opening week of miscellaneous hearings. The EWS case was heard by a Bench of three judges led by Justice Chandrachud while the Benches are sitting in a combination of two judges for the week.

Mr. Mehta said even a two-judge Bench led by Justice Chandrachud would be enough to hear the case as long as it was scheduled on Wednesday.

However, the CJI said the court would try to adjust its schedule to specially form a three-judge Bench.

NEET counselling was suspended after the Union government, on November 25, informed the top court about its “considered decision” to revisit the “criteria” determining EWS. The government had asked for four weeks’ time to form a review committee, examine the issue and file a report.

The government’s submission had followed rounds of grilling from the court during past hearings to reveal the logic and study before zeroing in on the “exact figure” of ₹8 lakh as the annual income limit to identify EWS of the society.

The Centre had formed a review committee comprising Ajay Bhushan Pandey, former Finance Secretary; Professor V.K. Malhotra, Member Secretary, ICSSR; and Sanjeev Sanyal, Principal Economic Advisor to the Government of India. The committee had submitted its report on December 31, supporting the ₹8 lakh income threshold as a “reasonable” basis to determine EWS.

“The current gross annual family income limit for EWS of ₹8 lakh or less may be retained. In other words, only those families whose annual income is up to ₹8 lakh would be eligible to get the benefit of EWS reservation,” the report said.

The committee has said the ₹8 lakh criterion strikes a “fine balance” between over-inclusion and inclusion errors.

“The figure ensures that most low-income people who are not required to pay income tax are not excluded and are covered in EWS and at the same time it should not be so high that it becomes over-inclusive by including many income tax-paying middle- and high-income families into EWS,” the report said.

The Supreme Court’s query was significant as the One Hundred and Third Constitutional Amendment of 2019, which introduced the 10% EWS quota, is itself under challenge before a larger Bench. The Amendment is under question for making economic criterion as the sole ground for grant of reservation benefits.

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