Explainer: The controversy over OBC reservation in MBBS

Explainer: The controversy over OBC reservation in MBBS
Representational image (Source: Shutterstock) Radhika | Sep 24, 2020 - 4:18 p.m. IST
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NEW DELHI: The Madras High Court, on July 27, directed the central government to constitute a committee to decide a formula to apply Tamil Nadu’s reservation scheme in the All India Quota or AIQ seats in the state’s medical colleges.

The committee will be responsible for determining the terms of implementing the Other Backward Caste (OBC) reservation in AIQ seats in the undergraduate and postgraduate medical and dental courses that Tamil Nadu contributes to the national pool.

At least 13 petitions were filed by major political parties in Tamil Nadu over OBC reservations in June. The High Court, disposing of these petitions, said that the committee will have “preferably” three months to suggest the guidelines. The secretary of the ministry of health will be a part of this committee.

The framework, the court said, will be implemented with “regard to courses that are to be run in future and not present academic year” to not disturb the 2020-21 selection process. Counselling for PG medical admission concluded in June. The MBBS academic year usually begins in August but has been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. Deliberations on the quota will not affect it.

But what is the controversy all about?

AIQ seats in medicine

The AIQ seats in medicine were created on the directions of the Supreme Court in 1984. All states were required to surrender 15 percent undergraduate and 50 percent postgraduate medical and dental seats in state-run colleges to a “central pool” with the rest going to a “state pool”. The “central pool” is the All India Quota (AIQ) and students across the country are eligible to apply for admission to this.

The central Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS) conducts counselling – which is the process of assigning a seat to a candidate – for the AIQ. The remaining seats are filled by the respective state counselling authorities and are generally reserved for permanent residents of that states.

Reservation in the AIQ seats came in 2009, with another court case. The Supreme Court ruled that the state reservation policy will apply to state seats and the AIQ seats as well. The reservation was introduced for the AIQ seats but as per the central scheme: 15 percent for Scheduled Castes and 7.5 percent for Scheduled Tribes. There was no mention of the 27 percent OBC reservation at this point.

Soon after, the Medical Council of India amended its regulations to implement state-specific reservations. It also introduced a national-level entrance test in 2010 but the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) was fully implemented in 2017. At present, students from all over the country must qualify the NEET and meet the cut-off percentile to be eligible for an AIQ seat.

The main issue is that the OBC quota was never implemented in the AIQ. One of the 13 writ petitions argued that the Union Government has not been “faithfully implementing” the OBC reservation in central institutions and it has avoided doing so in the seats surrendered by the state government-run medical colleges.

Central and state policy

While Tamil Nadu wrangled with the Centre over implementing the state policy in the central pool, another group demanded that at least the central policy should be fully implemented in the central pool of seats.

On May 11, the All India Federation of OBC Employees Welfare Association filed a complaint with the National Commission for Backward Classes claiming that over 10,000 AIQ seats that would have otherwise gone to OBC candidates had gone to general category ones because reservation was not implemented. The association’s estimate of the number of seats lost is based on the national policy of 27 percent OBC reservation.

The OBC commission served a notice to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and that was the immediate reason for the latest bout of litigation on AIQ seats.

The 50 percent cap

The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) along with other regional parties had earlier moved the Supreme Court asking for 50 percent OBC reservations in the AIQ. The petition was filed by DMK’s Rajya Sabha member and former Additional Solicitor General, P Wilson. The petition argues that the “DGHS, Medical Counselling Committee, the MCl and Dental Council of India have grossly failed to provide reservations for the OBC students in admissions”.

The Tamil Nadu unit of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) had also filed a PIL in the Supreme Court seeking a stay on admission to undergraduate medicine since the OBCs were being denied reservation.

The SC directed the petitioners to approach the Madras High Court .

Tamil Nadu’s state policy exceeds the 50 percent limit on reservation. In the state pool, Tamil Nadu reserves 50 percent seats for OBC and 19 percent for the SC and ST communities. In Puducherry, the 50 percent reserved seats include 34 percent for OBC and 16 percent for SC and ST students.

Meanwhile, the DGHS, in a separate hearing in the Supreme Court in July, argued that it was in favour of applying state-specific reservation but the policy should not require more than 50 percent seats to be reserved. This case has been pending since 2015.

However, as many in Tamil Nadu pointed out, in 2019, the health ministry had rolled out the 10 percent Economically Weaker Section quota and, therefore, the 50 percent limit had already been breached.

Denying reservation

Wilson argued the DGHS has been “illegally meddling” with AIQ seats by “highhandedly” denying reservations.

During hearings for the recently cases, the Centre told the Madras High Court that it is “unlikely to admit OBC students under AIQ medical seats” until the matter is settled in the Supreme Court. Since, the matter had already been directed to the high court , that argument was dismissed.

In July, the High Court upheld the state’s position that since the seats are created through investment by the state, the state policy cannot be overlooked while deciding reservation for the AIQ.

The Madras High Court observed that there is “no legal or constitutional impediment to extend[ing] reservation to OBC and the government is not debarred from exercising its legislative powers”. In fact, the central government has a “constitutional obligation” to take a decision, it said.

What next?

The order, while dealing only with Tamil Nadu, has also made it possible for other states to make similar claims. State reservation policies differ with some providing larger quotas for certain communities. For example, some states have only one percent reservation for the ST community because its presence in the population is small. Also, some states have a greater number of medical colleges which increases their share of seats in the central pool.

In Tamil Nadu, as per the MCI database, there are 3,650 MBBS seats in 26 government medical colleges. If the committee constituted by the Centre favours the 69 percent state reservation scheme, as many as 273 seats will be reserved for OBC students in the central pool.

To decide on the matter, the committee will have representatives from the DGHS, the ministry of health, Tamil Nadu Government, and the secretaries of MCI and DCI.

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