The Supreme Court on Friday allowed NEET counselling to proceed while maintaining 27% reservation for Other Backward Classes and 10% for Economically Weaker Sections in All India Quota seats under a July 29, 2021 government in order not to “dislocate” medical admissions this year.The ₹8 lakh gross annual family income limit criterion for identifying the Economically Weaker Sections (EWS), as originally notified by a January 2019, official memorandum and recommended for retention by the government-appointed former Finance Secretary Ajay BhushanPandey-led Expert Committee on December 31, 2021, would be implemented for the admission year 2021-2022.

Upholds 27% OBC reservation

The court, however, upheld the 27% reservation for OBC in NEET’s All India Quota (AIQ) seats for postgraduate and undergraduate admissions. There would be no further debate on this aspect.The question of the validity of the EWS criteria, including the ₹8 lakh income threshold, which has to be implemented in this year’s NEET counselling so as not to upset medical admissions for 2021-2022, would be heard finally and decided upon by the Supreme Court in the third week of March 2022, a Bench of Justices D.Y. Chandrachud and A.S. Bopanna noted in its interim order.

On EWS category

After pronouncing the interim order, Justice Chandrachud clarified orally to the parties that “we have upheld the constitutional validity of the 27% reservation for the OBC. On the EWS criteria, we have said for this year, the criteria which were notified earlier [January 2019] shall continue to operate to ensure that the admission process for this year shall not be dislocated”.

The judge continued, “prospectively, and for the future, we will hear the petitions finally on the EWS criteria in the third week of March and rule on that. The ruling will then apply prospectively and for the future”.

Pronouncing the operative directions in the interim order, the court noted the “urgent need to commence the process of NEET counselling” for 2021-2022.

Firstly, the court agreed with the government and the Pandey Committee that the EWS criteria as stipulated in January 2019 need to be used for the NEET admissions this year so that the entire exercise is not derailed.“Counselling for NEET PG 2021 and NEET UG 2021 shall be conducted by giving effect to the reservation provided by the notification of July 29, 2021, including27% reservation for OBC and 10% reservation for EWS category for the AIQ seats,” the court-ordered.

Secondly, the court directed that the “criteria for the determination of the EWS, as notified by January 2019 official memorandum, shall be used for identifying the EWS category for candidates who appeared for NEET PG and NEET UG examinations in 2021”.Thirdly, it said any further and prospective recommendations made by the Pandey Committee, modifying the criteria in the January 2019 memorandum, would be subject to the final result of the adjudication of the case in court.

The case concerns petitions filed by doctors in August 2021 against the July 29, 2021 notification issued by the Directorate General of Health Services of the Ministry of Health implementing 27% and 10% reservation for OBC and EWS categories, respectively, while filling up 15% undergraduate and 50% postgraduate AIQ seats under NEET.

The hearings in the case saw the court raise questions about the ₹8 lakh income limit to identify the EWS category as per January 2019, official memorandum.

The Constitution (One Hundred and Third Amendment) Act, which introduced the 10% EWS quota, came into force on January 14, 2019.

The court wondered whether there was any application of mind before fixing the ₹ 8 lakh limit and whether it was only a “mechanical adoption” of the OBC creamy lawyer cut-off.

On October 26, the government filed an affidavit maintaining in court that the income limit was fixed after “due deliberations”.

However, on November 25, the government said it wanted four weeks to review the income criterion for EWS. The government had deferred the NEET counselling for the time being.

The Pandey Committee was constituted on November 30 for this purpose. The panel submitted its report to the government on December 31, supporting the income limit as a “reasonable” criterion for identifying EWS. It had however suggested certain other modifications in EWS criteria, which could be considered for implementation only from the next academic year.

The committee recommended that the existing EWS criteria should be retained for NEET admissions in 2021-2022.

The government supported the Pandey panel recommendation in court and urged the court to allow the NEET counselling for 2021-2022 to resume under the existing system as per the July 29, 2021 notification along with the EWS criteria stipulated in January 2019.

The government’s urgency in court was apparent after doctors clashed with police in the Capital against the delay in NEET admissions even as a public health crisis raged in the country.