The Constitution enshrines the principle of non-discrimination on the basis of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or descent for appointment to any office under the State. Under this guarantee, similarly situated persons are to be treated equally. Article 16 however does not a bar reasonable classifications by the State for selection of employees.

State of Jammu & Kashmir v. Trilokinath Khosa

The locus classicus on the question whether educational qualifications can be used as a criteria for classification between persons integrated into one class for the purpose of promotion is the decision of a Constitution Bench of Supreme Court in State of Jammu & Kashmir v. Trilokinath Khosa[1].

In this case, the post of an Assistant Engineer in the Engineering Service branch of the appellants was filled by way of direct recruitment or through promotion from the cadre of Sub- ordinate Engineering Service. A rule was introduced in 1970 restricting the promotion to the next higher post of an Executive Engineer only to those Assistant Engineers who possessed a degree in engineering or held the qualification of A.M.I.E and had put in seven years of service.

The respondents, who were diploma holders and serving as Assistant Engineers, challenged the rule on grounds of discrimination. The Constitution Bench dealt with the question of whether persons recruited from different sources that are integrated into one class can then be classified to permit preferential treatment to some persons on the basis of their educational qualifications.

Justice YV Chandrachud, speaking for the Bench elaborated on the extent of judicial review in matters of classification in public employment and observed that,

“32. Judicial scrutiny can therefore extend only to the consideration whether the classification rests on a reasonable basis and whether it bears nexus with the object in view. It cannot extend to embarking upon a nice or mathematical evaluation of the basis of classification, for were such an inquiry permissible it would be open to the Courts to substitute their own judgment for that of the legislature or the Rule-making authority on the need to classify or the desirability of achieving a particular object.”

In Roop Chand Adlakha v. Delhi Development Authority[2], a two judge Bench of Supreme Court dealt with the question of whether different conditions of eligibility for promotion could be provided between diploma holders and degree holders. In the facts of the case, the initial recruitment to the cadre of Junior Engineer in the Public Works Department of the respondent was made from two different sources- that is degree holders with no experience and diploma holders having two years of experience or more.

For promotion to the cadre of Assistant Engineers, Junior Engineers holding a degree were required to have three years of experience, while Junior Engineers holding a diploma were required to have eight years of experience.

Following the decision of the Court in Trilokinath Justice MN Venkatachaliah observed that

“29. In Triloki Nath case diploma-holders were not considered eligible for promotion to the higher post. Here, in the present case, the possession of a diploma, by itself and without more, does not confer eligibility. Diploma, for purposes of promotion, is not considered equivalent to the degree. This is the point of distinction in the situations in the two cases.

If diploma- holders — of course on the justification of the job requirements and in the interest of maintaining a certain quality of technical expertise in the cadre — could validly be excluded from the eligibility for promotion to the higher cadre, it does not necessarily follow as an inevitable corollary that the choice of the recruitment policy is limited to only two choices, namely, either to consider them “eligible” or “not eligible”.

State, consistent with the requirements of the promotional posts and in the interest of the efficiency of the service, is not precluded from conferring eligibility on diploma-holders conditioning it by other requirements which may, as here, include certain quantum of service experience.

In the present case, eligibility determination was made by a cumulative criterion of a certain educational qualification plus a particular quantum of service experience. It cannot, in our opinion, be said, as postulated by the High Court, that the choice of the State was either to recognise diploma-holders as “eligible” for promotion or wholly exclude them as “not eligible”. If the educational qualification by itself was recognised as conferring eligibility for promotion, then, the superimposition of further conditions such as a particular period of service, selectively, on the diploma- holders alone to their disadvantage might become discriminatory.

This does not prevent the State from formulating a policy which prescribes as an essential part of the conditions for the very eligibility that the candidate must have a particular qualification plus a stipulated quantum of service experience. It is stated that on the basis of the “Vaish Committee” report, the authorities considered the infusion of higher academic and technical quality in the personnel requirements in the relevant cadres of Engineering Services necessary.

These are essentially matters of policy. Unless the provision is shown to be arbitrary, capricious, or to bring about grossly unfair results, judicial policy should be one of judicial restraint. The prescriptions may be somewhat cumbersome or produce some hardship in their application in some individual cases; but they cannot be struck down as unreasonable, capricious or arbitrary. The High Court, in our opinion, was not justified in striking down the rules as violative of Articles 14 and 16.”

In another decision in M Rathinaswami v. State of Tamil Nadu (2009), directly recruited Assistants were placed above the promotee Assistants in the list for promotion to the post of Deputy Tehsildar. The minimum qualification for direct recruitment to an Assistant was a graduation degree, while promotee Assistants, who were promoted from the rank of Junior Assistant, were usually non- graduates.

The Court observed that the classification made by the executive must have a rational basis. Thus, although the respondents could create a distinction between direct recruit graduate Assistants and non-graduate promotee Assistants on the basis of educational qualifications, those promotee Assistants who were graduates could not be discriminated against for the purpose of promotion.”

In State of Uttarakhand v. SK Singh[3] the minimum eligibility requirement for the feeder post of a Junior Engineer was that of a diploma, not a degree, however, degree holders were considered eligible. 60 per cent of appointments to the higher post of an Assistant Engineer were made through promotions from the cadre of Junior Engineer, while the balance 40 per cent were through direct recruitment. Out of the said 60 per cent, 7.33 per cent was reserved for accelerated promotion where Junior Assistants holding a degree were entitled to promotion after three years of service, as against the normal promotion which required ten years of service.

The High Court had held that if the higher qualification of a degree was not contemplated as a requirement for being appointed to the feeder post, then two different periods of experience could not be provided later for promotion to the next higher post.

In reversing the decision of the High Court, a two judge Bench of this Court speaking through Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul, upheld the different eligibility conditions for accelerated promotions for graduate Junior Assistants. The Court also went as far as to suggest that even if the non-graduates were completely shut out of promotion, or if the time periods (that is the experience) required for normal promotions were different between degree and diploma holders, those classifications would also be valid under law.

In Food Corporation of India v. Om Prakash[4], the Court adjudicated on the validity of a rule providing for different eligibility conditions between graduates and matriculates for promotion from the post of Assistant Grade II (AG II) to Assistant Grade I (AG I) as a typist or telephone operator. While the former were eligible for promotion after three years of service, the latter would be eligible after five years of service.

The Court struck down the rule as there was no material to show that the nature of work in the posts of AG I or AG II required higher efficiency which could only be expected from graduates and not non-graduates. Thus, the nexus between the rule and the objective of achieving higher efficiency was absent.

Summing up

The principles which emerge from the above line of precedents can be summarised as follows:

(i) Classification between persons must not produce artificial inequalities. The classification must be founded on a reasonable basis and must bear nexus to the object and purpose sought to be achieved to pass the muster of Articles 14 and 16;

(ii) Judicial review in matters of classification is limited to a determination of whether the classification is reasonable and bears a nexus to the object sought to be achieved. Courts cannot indulge in a mathematical evaluation of the basis of classification or replace the wisdom of the legislature or its delegate with their own;

(iii) Generally speaking, educational qualification is a valid ground for classification between persons of the same class in matters of promotion and is not violative of Articles 14 and 16 of the Constitution;

(iv) Persons drawn from different sources and integrated into a common class can be differentiated on grounds of educational qualification for the purpose of promotion, where this bears a nexus with the efficiency required in the promotional post;

(v) Educational qualification may be used for introducing quotas for promotion for a certain class of persons; or may even be used to restrict promotion entirely to one class, to the exclusion of others;

(vi) Educational qualification may be used as a criterion for classification for promotion to increase administrative efficiency at the higher posts; and

(vii) However, a classification made on grounds of educational qualification should bear nexus to the purpose of the classification or the extent of differences in qualifications.


Chandra Banerjee v. Krishna Prasad Ghosh (2021)

[1] (1974) 1 SCC 19 3

[2] 1989 AIR 307

[3] (2019) 10 SCC 49 3

[4] 2018) 1 SCC 149