Uproar over affirmative action exemption for medical schools

A ruling by India’s Supreme Court that appointments for highly specialised teaching positions in medical colleges cannot be subject to affirmative action caste-based quotas has led to a political uproar that has disrupted the current session of parliament, where a number of higher education bills are pending.

The issue of caste reservations is highly political, with elections due in five states and national elections scheduled for 2014. Political parties frequently curry favour with specific caste groups or ‘vote banks’ by promising quotas in government jobs. Medical positions are among the most prestigious of these.

The Supreme Court on 18 July ruled that there should be no reservations for faculty posts in ‘specialty and super-specialty courses’ in medical colleges.

The five-judge constitutional panel’s verdict was in response to a plea by the faculty association at India’s premier medical institution – the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, or AIIMS, in New Delhi.

The association argued that appointments should be based purely on merit for speciality and super-speciality courses, which require another three years of medical training after the postgraduate medical degree and include cardiology, neurology and nephrology, among other specialities.

But the court’s decision unleashed a barrage of criticism from political parties, particularly those supported by disadvantaged groups, which has disrupted parliament’s Monsoon session that began on 5 August and runs until the end of the month.

Reservations have been part of India’s constitution since independence in 1947, when 7.5% of seats in all government-funded higher education institutions were reserved for ‘scheduled tribes’ and 15% for ‘scheduled castes’ or Dalits, previously known as ‘untouchables’, to promote equal access.

In 2008 the government brought in an additional 22.5% reservation for students belonging to ‘other backward classes’, or OBCs – which are socially, educationally and economically backward – in all federally funded universities and higher education institutions.

Faculty reservations and student reservations in all central government institutions are currently 27% for OBC, 15% for 'scheduled castes' and 7.5% for 'scheduled tribes'.

Any exemption granted to AIIMS Delhi for speciality and super-speciality positions would also apply to the six new AIIMS being established in less prosperous regions. They include Rishikesh in Uttarakhand province, Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh, Jodhpur in Rajasthan, Patna in Bihar, Raipur in Chattisgarh and Bhubaneshwar in Orissa.

Government appeal

Bowing to opposition and pressure from various political parties including its coalition allies, on Wednesday the government filed a petition in the Supreme Court seeking revocation of the order against reservation in AIIMS for highly specialised faculty.

The government had argued in its Supreme Court submission that social justice could be achieved only when a large number of ‘reserved category’ candidates were brought into educational institutions and services.

The government will also consider introducing a constitutional amendment in the current session of parliament to annul the order, if the court declines the appeal, Law Minister Kapil Sibal told parliament.

A constitutional amendment was backed across party lines during the 14 August parliamentary sitting. “Our party has always supported reservations,” Sibal told the house last Wednesday, amid shouting and disruption over constitutional quotas for higher education being watered down.

Meira Kumar, speaker of the house, acknowledged the uproar in the Lok Sabha, the lower house, saying: “The whole house is very agitated over this issue and my suggestion to the government side is that it should think of a constitutional amendment.”

Populist MP Mulayam Singh Yadav, who leads the Samajwadi Party mainly representing the interests of OBCs, said of the Supreme Court ruling: “No decision can be more biased.

“This issue should not be reviewed but revoked immediately. This is not a simple issue; it will set the country on fire.” Yadav was referring to the unrest that often erupts over caste politics.

Dara Singh Chauhan, head of the Bahujan Samaj Party, which represents all the main low-caste groups, maintained that reservations were a constitutional right, not “alms” given to some people.

Specialists must be the best

Reacting to the government’s decision to appeal, Dr K Vijayakumar, national president of the Indian Medical Association, said that politicians aimed for vote banks while the courts focused on quality.

“Personally, I feel the Supreme Court judgment is welcome because when you are dealing with super-specialty cases in medicine you must have the best,” said Vijayakumar.

However, he said more discussion was required before any statements could be made on behalf of the medical association.

Dr Ajay Kumar Singh, president of the Progressive Medicos Forum, a help group for OBC and other reservation students, said students who qualified for super-speciality disciplines were chosen on merit.

There was no reservation for the doctor of medicine exam, for which students had to qualify in order to enter any super-speciality. “So, only the best qualify – and there is no case for compromising on quality,” argued Singh.

“Since everyone has passed the minimum benchmark why should we not have reservations for faculty, to ensure that the backward classes get equal opportunity, as is the case in IIT faculty appointments?” Singh said, referring to the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology.

IIT case

This is not the first time that elite institutions across India have opposed reservations in faculty appointments.

The seven older IITs jointly opposed the extension of caste-based quotas for OBCs to faculty appointments when the bill got to parliament in 2008.

The bill sought to provide exemption from some reservations in the appointment of faculty in ‘institutions of national importance’. It listed 47 institutions, including the IITs. The institutes expected to be exempt, but MPs opposed the exemption and reservation quotas still apply to faculty appointments.

The unanimous opinion of the five-judge bench on AIIMS will now be law until the verdict is overruled by a larger bench or by parliament.

The debate took up considerable time in a packed parliamentary schedule. A number of higher education bills are pending in parliament.

They include the Prevention of Unfair Practices Bill, which is intended to curb corrupt practices such as collecting ‘capitation’ fees for admissions. An innovation universities bill has also been tabled and is awaiting passage, as is a bill to allow foreign universities to set up campuses in India.