In January 2019, the Government of India implemented the provision for 10% reservation, under EWS (Economically Weaker Section) category, in public and private universities and in public employment after Articles 15(6) and 16(6) have been inserted in the Constitution through the 103rd Amendment Act, 2019. 10% reservation under EWS category is applicable to those persons who are not covered under the existing scheme of reservations for the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes and the Socially and Educationally Backward Classes. The Government of India (GoI) defined EWS as those individuals with an annual family income of less than Rs. 8 lakh or those who owned less property than the limits it laid down. However, in the course of the past three years, over 40 petitions were heard in the apex court challenging the constitutional validity of the 103rd Amendment Act, 2019. Reservation, as a vital tool of upliftment, has been introduced to neutralise the negative impact created by centuries of social oppression meted out to lower castes by higher castes.
The foundation of the reservation system can be traced back to the social justice movement in Tamil Nadu, which began with the ‘Communal G.O.’, issued 101 years ago by the Justice Party government. The fundamental intent behind this was to provide equitable opportunities to those communities that had earlier found it difficult to secure jobs in public institutions and educational institutions. The core of this movement, as espoused by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, was to alleviate those communities who are deemed to be socially inferior to other communities. It was observed that their social identity had limited the educational and professional opportunities they could have access to. Therefore, providing educational and professional opportunities to these oppressed communities, through reservation of jobs and seats in public and private institutions, would eventually destroy all those social identities that force them to remain below the poverty line. Dr. Ambedkar had envisaged that reservation, as a tool of social change, would help in uplifting the underprivileged.
After 75 years of independence, educational opportunities provided through reservation coupled with the advent of globalisation creating numerous economic opportunities, economic scales have shifted in favour of the initially designated beneficiaries. This has resulted in the need to redefine ‘underprivileged’ to include even the economically underprivileged. The social status of a person, in the 21st century, is no longer solely decided by their caste identity alone. It was noticed gradually that those belonging to the traditionally higher caste were unable to enter educational institutions because of increased competition levels and limited access to resources.
A miniscule level of this problem was seen way back in the 1950s when Srimathi Champakam Dorairajan, a Brahmin, was unable to get admission to the medical college despite gaining good marks. Those who belong to these communities that are not eligible for reservation based on social identity are left to compete with those individuals within their community who have better access to resources. This created ground for inequality in terms of access to educational and professional opportunities in public and private institutions.
In light of this dichotomy caused by economic inequality, GoI had decided to provide 10% reservation to EWS. After hearing multiple petitions, the Supreme Court recently passed a verdict in November 2022 upholding the constitutional validity of the 103rd Amendment Act, 2019. However, regional parties like the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) had vehemently opposed the move terming the verdict a 'setback' to a century-old fight for social justice. What needs to be remembered at this juncture is that the ultimate aim of social justice is to place all communities on an equal ground in terms of opportunities. The 10% reservation under EWS category enables those who belong to non-OBC and non-SC/ST communities with limited resources gain access to opportunities that are otherwise not accessible to them because of the increased competition levels thereby putting India first.