India: Supreme Court Strikes Down Practice Of Grant Of Reservation For In-Service Candidates In Post Graduate Medical Degree Courses

The Hon'ble Supreme Court of India (SC) has, in the case of State of Uttar Pradesh v Dr Dinesh Singh Chauhan, struck down the practice of grant of reservation for in-service candidates in post graduate medical degree courses.

Background

The Medical Council of India Post Graduate Medical Education Regulations, 2000 (MCI Regulations), govern the determination of admission criteria and other related aspects for all post graduate medical courses in India. Regulation 9 of the MCI Regulations has been held by the Hon'ble Supreme Court of India (SC) to be a complete code in relation to such admissions and to hence be binding and mandatory. Under Entry 66 of List I, Schedule VII read with Entry 25, List III of Schedule VII of the Constitution of India, it is evident that while both the Union and State Governments have the power to pass legislations in relation to education (including medical education), the powers of State Governments are subject to the application of 'doctrine of occupied field'.

Therefore, any laws made or orders / rules passed by State legislatures under the above provisions of the Constitution of India must be in consonance with the MCI Regulations (which is a Central Legislation). Such rules or laws, to the extent that they are contrary to the scheme of the MCI Regulations, would be ultra-vires and hence, liable to be struck down. A perusal of the MCI Regulations sets out that entry to post graduate medical courses is to be based strictly on merit. Therefore, reservation on any basis for entry to medical colleges for post-graduate degree courses is not permitted, although there is a provision for the creation of 50% reservation for in-service candidates (those that are serving in rural or urban areas) in post-graduate diploma courses.

However, several States have over a period of time created reservation (allocating as many as 50-60% of the total seats) for in-service candidates appearing in examinations for entry to post-graduate degree courses. This was allowed by various courts, including the SC, which held that such reservation is permitted as it does not fall under the category of 'reservations' as ordinarily understood in the conventional sense, but amounts to a separate / exclusive channel or source of entry for admissions.

The distinction between in-service candidates and open candidates has also been held to be a reasonable one, and a separate entry channel for in-service candidates was upheld because it served the noble purpose of encouraging doctors to serve in government hospitals and contribute to public welfare, by pursuing further studies.

The only embargo placed upon such reservation system was that since the in-service and open category candidates formed two distinct groups, the benefits granted to one group must not be encroached upon by the other. Owing to this, merit lists were drawn up separately within the two categories and admissions would be granted as long as candidates obtained the minimum marks prescribed by the Medical Council of India (MCI) in the common entrance test.

Facts

The State of Uttar Pradesh (UP), by way of a Government Order dated 28 February 2014 (Government Order), created a reservation of 30% for in-service candidates for admission to post-graduate medical courses in 6 State medical colleges. Such reservation could be availed of by those persons who had passed the common entrance examination, if they had served in difficult, remote and backward health centres (as determined by the State Government) or primary or community health centres for a period of 3 years of more.

This Government Order was challenged by in-service candidates in urban areas before the Hon'ble Allahabad High Court (Allahabad HC) seeking, inter alia, the inclusion of the areas they had been serving in and questioning the arbitrary application of the 3 year criteria retrospectively, which had effectively deprived them of the opportunity of opting for rural areas, as they were unaware of the added advantage of doing so at the time of making such choice. The Allahabad HC, on a perusal of the MCI Regulations, struck down the Government Order on the basis that the MCI Regulations, the relevant portion thereof being applicable from 2013-2014, being a complete binding code in itself, did not provide for any reservation for admission to post graduate degree courses, to which selection was to be based purely on merit.

As a result, the beneficiaries of the Government Order, who had already completed all rounds of counselling and were awaiting the start of their courses (after resigning from their in-service positions), aggrieved by the Allahabad HC's order, approached the SC. The SC, in an attempt to balance the equities perused the MCI Regulations for a solution and found that under the proviso to Regulation 9(IV) of the MCI Regulations, while no reservation of seats could be created, certain weightage (up to 10% for each year of rural service, capped at 30%) could be granted to in-service candidates serving in rural areas.

Therefore, vide its interim order dated 12 May 2016 (Interim Order), the SC, after obtaining the State's consent, passed an order directing re-drawing of the merit lists after adjusting weightage up to 30% for in-service candidates in accordance with the MCI Regulations. However, once this was done, while it benefitted the in-service candidates as the number of seats for them went up considerably, it led to a situation where there was considerable re-shuffling of ranks and several open category candidates who were in the upper ranks, found themselves shifted much lower down the lists, which affected their college and course selections.

The affected open category candidates then approached the SC, claiming that under the principles laid down for admission to post-graduate medical courses , they had no objection to reservation for in-service candidates as a separate entry channel, however any benefits, such as weightage granted to such candidates, must be confined to their category alone.

The candidates who had benefitted from the SC's Interim Order also approached the SC seeking status quo and implementation of the Interim Order, at least for admissions in the academic year 2016-2017. There were another set of petitioners before the SC, comprising of those persons who were eligible for grant of weightage as per the Interim Order as they had served in remote, difficult and backward rural areas, but had not completed their applications, assuming they would not qualify at the relevant time as they were unaware of the fact that 30% weightage would be granted by the SC at a future point of time.

The SC heard all the interested parties before it on the issue of whether reservation for in-service candidates should be allowed.

Judgment

The SC, on 16 August 2016, held that the Allahabad HC had no option but to quash the Government Order since it was in violation of Regulation 9 of the MCI Regulations.

The SC held that Regulation 9(IV) of the MCI Regulations provides only for reservation of seats as per the Constitutional scheme (for scheduled castes, scheduled tribes or other backward class candidates) and not for in-service candidates or medical officers in service. Further, while this provision contains a proviso providing for weightage in marks for candidates as an incentive at the rate of 10% per year spent in rural service and capped at a total of 30%, the same cannot be interpreted, even liberally, to provide for reservation for in-service candidates.

The SC further held that the MCI is an expert body and that the MCI Regulations have been framed  keeping in mind that doctors are usually concentrated in urban areas, while rural areas across the country are largely neglected despite the best efforts of State Governments. The MCI Regulations, brought into force in 2013-2014 after several amendments, must be given effect in order to serve the dual purposes of ensuring that freshly qualified doctors opt for rural service as they would later stand a good chance of getting admitted to post graduate degree courses and, that rural health care units run by the State Governments would receive the benefit of being served by well qualified doctors.

In light of the above, the SC stated that the MCI Regulations had been framed to serve the larger public interest and that the challenge to Regulation 9, for being unreasonable and irrational, was found to have no merit. The MCI Regulations could not be struck down if the State Government had failed to properly notify rural areas. As far as the re-shuffling of the merit list was concerned, the SC held that there could be no right to get the subject or college of one's choice, and that as long as the rights of such candidates to be considered for admission was not affected, their challenge could not be accepted as the MCI Regulations seek to achieve a larger public purpose.

The SC also held that while the subject matter of challenge before the Allahabad HC pertained to admissions for the year 2015-2016, admissions for the said academic year had already been completed. Therefore, disturbing the admissions would have the effect of approximately 500 seats remaining unfilled, and requiring the seats for the academic year 2016-2017 to be doubled. Since this was not feasible and avoidable, the SC chose to mould its relief such that the Interim Order would only impact  admissions for the academic year 2016-2017  and further directed that all future admissions  be made strictly in accordance with the MCI Regulations governing the procedure for selection to post graduate medical degree courses.

Comment

The SC Judgment is likely to have a far-reaching impact on medical students as going forward, the age old practice of the creation of reservation for in-service candidates will no longer exist and may pave the way to for the practice of granting weightage of up to 10% per year (capped at a total of 30% for eligible in-service candidates serving in rural areas) as prescribed under the MCI Guidelines in force from the year 2013-2014.

The in-service candidates who benefitted from the Interim Order of the Hon'ble Supreme Court dated 12 May 2016, which was then extended to the academic year 2016-17, were represented by Khaitan & Co before the SC.

The content of this document do not necessarily reflect the views/position of Khaitan & Co but remain solely those of the author(s). For any further queries or follow up please contact Khaitan & Co at legalalerts@khaitanco.com

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