MR Balaji v. State of Mysore (1962),

In MR Balaji v. State of Mysore (1962), a Constitution Bench of Supreme Court rejected the argument that in the absence of a limitation contained in Article 15(4), no limitation can be prescribed by the court on the extent of reservation. It observed that a provision under Article 15(4) being a “special provision” must be within reasonable limits. It may be appropriate to quote the relevant holding from the judgment:

“When Article 15(4) refers to the special provision for the advancement of certain classes or Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes, it must not be ignored that the provision which is authorised to be made is a special provision; it is not a provision which is exhaustive in character, so that in looking after the advancement of those classes, the State would be justified in ignoring altogether the advancement of the rest of the society. It is because the interests of the society at large would be served by promoting the advancement of the weaker elements in the society that Article 15(4) authorises special provision to be made.

But if a provision which is in the nature of an exception completely excludes the rest of the society that clearly is outside the scope of Article 15(4). It would be extremely unreasonable to assume that in enacting Article 15(4) the Parliament intended to provide that where the advancement of the Backward Classes or the Scheduled Castes and Tribes was concerned, the fundamental rights of the citizens constituting the rest of the society were to be completely and absolutely ignored….A Special provision contemplated by Article 15(4) like reservation for posts and appointments contemplated by Article 16(4) must be within reasonable limits.

The interests of weaker sections of society which are a first charge on the State and the center have to be adjusted with the interests of the community as a whole. The adjustment of these competing claims is undoubtedly a difficult matter, but if under the guise of making a special provision, a State reserves practically all the seats available in all the colleges that clearly would be adverting the object of Article 15(4). In this matter again, we are reluctant to say definitely what would be a proper provision to make.

Speaking generally and in a broad way a special provision should be less than 50%; how much less than 50% would depend upon the relevant prevailing circumstances in each case.”

Devadasan v. Union of India, (1964)

In Devadasan this rule of 50% was applied to a case arising under Article 16(4) and on that basis the carry-forward rule was struck down.

State of Kerala vs. N.M. Thomas (1976) 

In Thomas, however the correctness of this principle was questioned. Fazal Ali, J. observed:

This means that the reservation should be within the permissible limits and should not be a cloak to fill all the posts belonging to a particular class of citizens and thus violate Article 16(1) of the Constitution indirectly. At the same time Clause (4) of Article 16 does not fix any limit on the power of the government to make reservation. Since Clause (4) is a part of Article 16 of the Constitution it is manifest that the State cannot be allowed to indulge in excessive reservation so as to defeat the policy contained in Article 16(1).

As to what would be a suitable reservation within permissible limits will depend upon the facts and circumstances of each case and no hard and fast rule can be laid down, nor can this matter be reduced to a mathematical formula so as to be adhered to in all cases. Decided cases of Supreme Court have no doubt laid down that the percentage of reservation should not exceed 50%.

As I read the authorities, this is however, a rule of caution and does not exhaust all categories. Suppose for instance a State has a large number of backward class of citizens which constitute 80% of the population and the Government, in order to give them proper representation, reserves 80% of the jobs for them can it be said that the percentage of reservation is bad and violates the permissible limits of Clause (4) of Article 16? The answer must necessarily be in the negative. The dominant object to this provision is to take steps to make inadequate representation adequate.

Krishna Iyer, J. agreed with the view taken by Fazal Ali, J. in the following words:

I agree with my learned brother Fazal Ali, J. in the view that the arithmetical limit of 50% in any one year set by some earlier rulings cannot perhaps be pressed too far. Overall representation in a department does not depend on recruitment in a particular year, but the total strength of a cadre. I agree with his construction of Article 16(4) and his view about the carry forward’ rule.

Mathew, J. did not specifically deal with this aspect but from the principles of ‘proportional equality’ and ‘equality of results’ espoused by the learned Judge, it is argued that he did not accept the 50% rule.

Beg, J. also did not refer to this rule but the following sentence occurs in his judgment at pages 962 and 963:

If a reservation of posts under Article 16(4) for employees of backward classes could include complete reservation of higher posts to which they could be promoted, about which there could be no doubt now, I fail to see why it cannot be partial or for a part of the duration of service and hedged round with the condition that a temporary promotion would operate as a complete and confirmed promotion only if the temporary promotee satisfies some tests within a given time.

Ray, C.J., did not dispute the correctness of the 50% rule but at the same time he pointed out that this percentage should be applied to the entire service as a whole.

Whether 50% reservation rule was overruled in Thomas Case?

After the decision in Thomas, controversy arose whether the 50% rule enunciated in Balaji stands overruled by Thomas or does it continue to be valid.

K.C. Vasanth Kumar & Another vs State Of Karnataka, 1985

In Vasant Kumar, two learned judges came to precisely opposite conclusions on this question. Chinnappa Reddy, J. held that Thomas has the effect of undoing the 50% rule in Balaji whereas Venkataramiah, J. held that it does not.

Indira Sawhney Case (1992)

In this case, the court pointed out that Clause (4) speaks of adequate representation and not proportionate representation. Adequate representation cannot be read as proportionate representation. Principle of proportionate representation is accepted only in Articles 330 and 332 of the Constitution and that too for a limited period. These articles speak of reservation of seats in Lok Sabha and the State Legislatures in favour of Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes proportionate to their population, but they are only temporary and special provisions. It is therefore not possible to accept the theory of proportionate representation though the proportion of population of backward classes to the total population would certainly be relevant.

Speaking for the majority bench, Justice B.P. Jeevan Reddy said,

Just as every power must be exercised reasonably and fairly, the power conferred by Clause (4) of Article 16 should also be exercised in a fair manner and within reasonably limits – and what is more reasonable than to say that reservation under Clause (4) shall not exceed 50% of the appointments or posts, barring certain extra-ordinary situations as explained hereinafter.

From this point of view, the 27% reservation provided by the impugned Memorandums in favour of backward classes is well within the reasonable limits. Together with reservation in favour of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, it comes to a total of 49.5%.

It needs no emphasis to say that the principle aim of Article 14 and 16 is equality and equality of opportunity and that Clause (4) of Article 16 is but a means of achieving the very same objective. Clause (4) is a special provision – though not an exception to Clause (1). Both the provisions have to be harmonised keeping in mind the fact that both are but the restatements of the principle of equality enshrined in Article 14.

The provision under Article 16(4) – conceived in the interest of certain sections of society – should be balanced against the guarantee of equality enshrined in Clause (1) of Article 16 which is a guarantee held out to every citizen and to the entire society.

It is relevant to point out that Dr. Ambedkar himself contemplated reservation being “confined to a minority of seats” (See his speech in Constituent Assembly, set out in para 28). No other member of the Constituent Assembly suggested otherwise. It is, thus clear that reservation of a majority of seats was never envisaged by the founding fathers. Nor are we satisfied that the present context requires us to depart from that concept.

From the above discussion, the irresistible conclusion that follows is that the reservations contemplated in Clause (4) of Article 16 should not exceed 50%.

Exceptions to 50% Rule

On Exceptions to 50% Rule, the court said,

While 50% shall be the rule, it is necessary not to put out of consideration certain extraordinary situations inherent in the great diversity of this country and the people. It might happen that in far-flung and remote areas the population inhabiting those areas might, on account of their being out of the main stream of national life and in view of conditions peculiar to and characteristically to them, need to be treated in a different way, some relaxation in this strict rule may become imperative. In doing so, extreme caution is to be exercised and a special case made out.

In this connection it is well to remember that the reservations under Article 16(4) do not operate like a communal reservation. It may well happen that some members belonging to, say Scheduled Castes get selected in the open competition field on the basis of their own merit; they will not be counted against the quota reserved for Scheduled Castes; they will be treated as open competition candidates

We are also of the opinion that this rule of 50% applies only to reservations in favour of backward classes made under Article 16(4).

‘Vertical reservations’ and ‘horizontal reservations’.

A little clarification is in order at this juncture: all reservations are not of the same nature. There are two types of reservations, which may, for the sake of convenience, be referred to as ‘vertical reservations’ and ‘horizontal reservations’.

The reservations in favour of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and other backward classes [under Article 16(4)] may be called vertical reservations whereas reservations in favour of physically handicapped [under Clause (1) of Article 16] can be referred to as horizontal reservations. Horizontal reservations cut across the vertical reservations that is called inter-locking reservations.

To be more precise, suppose 3% of the vacancies are reserved in favour of physically handicapped persons; this would be a reservation relatable to Clause (1) of Article 16. The persons selected against this quota will be placed in the appropriate category; if he belongs to S.C. category he will be placed in that quota by making necessary adjustments; similarly, if he belongs to open competition (O.C.) category, he will be placed in that category by making necessary adjustments.

Even after providing for these horizontal reservations, the percentage of reservations in favour of backward class of citizens remains – and should remain – the same. This is how these reservations are worked out in several States and there is no reason not to continue that procedure.

It is, however, made clear that the rule of 50% shall be applicable only to reservations proper; they shall not be – indeed cannot be – applicable to exemptions, concessions or relaxations, if any provided to ‘Backward Class of Citizens’ under Article 16(4).

The next aspect of this question is whether a year should be taken as the unit or the total strength of the cadre, for the purpose of applying the 50% rule. Balaji does not deal with this aspect but Devadasan (majority opinion) does. Mudholkar, J. speaking for the majority says:

We would like to emphasise that the guarantee contained in Article 16(1) is for ensuring equality of opportunity for all citizens relating to employment, and to appointments to any office under the State. This means that on every occasion for recruitment the State should see that all citizens are treated equally.

The guarantee is to each individual citizen and, therefore, every citizen who is seeking employment or appointment to an office under the State is entitled to be afforded an opportunity for seeking such employment or appointment whenever it is intended to be filled. In order to effectuate the guarantee each year of recruitment will have to be considered by itself and the reservation for backward communities should not be so excessive as to create a monopoly or to disturb unduly the legitimate claims of other communities.

On the other hand is the approach adopted by Ray, C.J. in Thomas. While not disputing the correctness of the 50% rule he seems to apply it to the entire service as such. In our opinion, the approach adopted by Ray, C.J. would not be consistent with Article 16. True it is that the backward classes, who are victims of historical social injustice, which has not ceased fully as yet, are not properly represented in the services under the State but it may not be possible to redress this imbalance in one go, i.e., in a year or two. The position can be better explained by taking an illustration. Take a unit/service/cadre comprising 1000 posts.

The reservation in favour of Scheduled Tribes, Scheduled Castes and Other Backward Classes is 50% which means that out of the 1000 posts 500 must be held by the members of these classes i.e., 270 by other backward classes, 150 by Scheduled Castes and 80 by Scheduled Tribes. At a given point of time, let us say, the number of members of O.B.Cs. in the unit/service/category is only 50, a short fall of 220. Similarly the number of members of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes is only 20 and 5 respectively, shortfall of 130 and 75.

If the entire service/cadre is taken as a unit and the backlog is sought to be made up, then the open competition channel has to be choked altogether for a number of years until the number of members of all backward classes reaches 500, i.e., till the quota meant for each of them is filled up. This may take quite a number of years because the number of vacancies arising each year are not many. Meanwhile, the members of open competition category would become age barred and ineligible. Equality of opportunity in their case would become a mere mirage.

It must be remembered that the equality of opportunity guaranteed by Clause (1) is to each individual citizen of the country while Clause (4) contemplates special provision being made in favour of socially disadvantaged classes. Both must be balanced against each other. Neither should be allowed to eclipse the other. For the above reason, we hold that for the purpose of applying the rule of 50% an year should be taken as the unit and not the entire strength of the cadre, service or the unit, as the case may be.


Indira Sawhney v. Union of India (1992)