On 12 January, the Indian constitution was amended through the 103rd Constitutional Amendment to introduce a reservation of up to 10 percent in government jobs and educational institutions for “economically weaker sections” of citizens. The pool of eligible citizens excludes those already covered by Articles 15(4) and (5), and Article 16(4) of the constitution—which pertain to reservations for the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes. In effect, this reservation will only apply to persons from the upper castes. As opposed to the existing reservations that focus on remedying the disadvantage of socially marginalised groups, the 10-percent quota focuses solely on individual economic disadvantage, and will apply only to upper-caste families who earn an annual income of less than Rs 8 lakh.
Shortly after its introduction, the anti-reservation non-governmental organisation Youth for Equality, the lawyers Reepak Kansal and Pawan, and the political commentator Tehseen Poonawalla, filed separate petitions challenging the amendment in the Supreme Court. The petitions questioned the use of economic criteria as the sole basis for reservation, excluding persons in the SC, ST and OBC categories. The court decided to hear the petitions but declined to stay the operation of the amendment. On 28 March, the apex court will hear arguments on whether the petitions need to be referred to a constitution bench comprising five judges.
The arguments for and against reservations based on economic criteria are not new, and find their oldest articulations in the constituent assembly debates. However, the constituent assembly never considered a disadvantage defined solely in economic terms as a criterion for reservation. Even those members who supported an economic basis for reservations did so for groups that they considered socially disadvantaged or backward in some other respect. Following the adoption of the constitution, several government-appointed commissions have deliberated on the nature of reservations in India.