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Explained: How horizontal, vertical quotas work; what Supreme Court said

The interlocking of the two types of reservation throws up a host of questions on how certain groups are to be identified. For example, would an SC woman be put in the category of women or SC?

Written by Apurva Vishwanath | New Delhi |
Updated: January 13, 2021 1:12:34 pm
Supreme court of India, Reservation, SC ST Reservation, horizontal reservation, vertical reservation, indian express newsThe Supreme Court of India. (Express Photo)

The Supreme Court last month clarified the position of law on the interplay of vertical and horizontal reservations. The December 18 decision by a two-judge Bench in Saurav Yadav versus State of Uttar Pradesh dealt with issues arising from the way different classes of reservation were to be applied in the selection process to fill posts of constables in the state.

What are vertical and horizontal reservations?

Reservation for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and Other Backward Classes is referred to as vertical reservation. It applies separately for each of the groups specified under the law.

Horizontal reservation refers to the equal opportunity provided to other categories of beneficiaries such as women, veterans, the transgender community, and individuals with disabilities, cutting through the vertical categories.

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How are the two categories of quotas applied together?

The horizontal quota is applied separately to each vertical category, and not across the board. For example, if women have 50% horizontal quota, then half of the selected candidates will have to necessarily be women in each vertical quota category — i.e., half of all selected SC candidates will have to be women, half of the unreserved or general category will have to be women, and so on.

The interlocking of the two types of reservation throws up a host of questions on how certain groups are to be identified. For example, would an SC woman be put in the category of women or SC? Since quotas are fixed in percentages, what percentage of quota would be attributed to each?

What was the Saurav Yadav case about?

The case was on the technicalities that form a substantial question of law. It was this:

Sonam Tomar and Rita Rani had secured 276.5949 and 233.1908 marks respectively. They had applied under the categories of OBC-Female and SC-Female respectively. OBC and SC are vertical reservation categories, while Female is a horizontal reservation category.

The two candidates did not qualify in their categories. However, in the General-Female (unreserved-female) category, the last qualifying candidate had secured 274.8298 marks, a score that was lower than Tomar’s.

The question before the court was that if the underlying criterion for making selections is “merit”, should Tomar be selected under General-Female quota instead of the OBC-Female category for having secured a higher score?

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What did the court decide?

The court ruled against the Uttar Pradesh government, holding that if a person belonging to an intersection of vertical-horizontal reserved category had secured scores high enough to qualify without the vertical reservation, the person would be counted as qualifying without the vertical reservation, and cannot be excluded from the horizontal quota in the general category.

A similar question had arisen in the case of vertical reservations in the past, and the law had been settled similarly: If a person in the SC category secures a higher score than the cut-off for the general category, the person would be counted as having qualified under the general category instead of the SC quota.

What was the government’s argument?

The government’s policy was to restrict and contain reserved category candidates to their categories, even when they had secured higher grades. The court said this was tantamount to ensuring that the general category was ‘reserved’ for upper castes.

What was the court’s reasoning?

The court did the math. Examining a number of hypothetical scenarios, it concluded that if both vertical and horizontal quotas were to be applied together — and consequently, a high-scoring candidate who would otherwise qualify without one of the two reservations is knocked off the list — then the overall selection would have candidates with lower scores.

On the other hand, if a high-scoring candidate is allowed to drop one category, the court found that the overall selection would reflect more high-scoring candidates. In other words, the “meritorious” candidates would be selected.

The ruling strikes at the heart of the debate on “merit versus reservation”, where reservation is sometimes projected as being anti-merit.

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