Explained: The Maharashtra and MP cases in SC on OBC quota in local body polls

The Supreme Court on Wednesday allowed local body elections in Madhya Pradesh with reservation for OBCs on the basis of a second report filed by the state backward classes commission. In doing so, the court modified its order of May 10, in which it had directed that the elections should be notified without a quota for OBCs because the state had not completed the “triple test” laid down by it in March 2021 for providing such reservation.

After the order was passed, leaders of Maharashtra’s ruling Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) complained that different rules had been applied to different states — and demanded that if the Supreme Court had approved reservations for OBCs in Madhya Pradesh, the same should be allowed in Maharashtra as well.

The Supreme Court has emphasized since 2010 that OBC quota in elections should be backed by empirical data, unlike reservation for OBCs, (along with SCs and STs) in education and employment. Local body elections in at least three states, Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Madhya Pradesh had been stalled in the absence of updated empirical data on OBC groups.

On what basis has the Supreme Court cleared local body elections in Madhya Pradesh?

Madhya Pradesh had moved an application seeking modification of the court’s May 10 order, saying the backward classes commission had, on the basis of observations made by the court, prepared a second report which satisfies the triple-test requirement. This revised report had been submitted on May 12.

The Bench, which perused the second report, said it focused on the local body-wise reservation for OBCs keeping in mind the maximum reservation limit of 50 per cent as laid down by the Supreme Court.
The court said that “for the time being, we permit the Madhya Pradesh State Election Commission to notify the election program for the respective local bodies”. However, “we may not be understood to have expressed final opinion either way on the validity and correctness of the stated reports”, and “as and when the challenge is set up…that may have to be considered on its own merits…”.

Why did the Supreme Court reject the interim report of the state backward classes commission in the case of Maharashtra?

In January, the Supreme Court had directed the Maharashtra government to submit data on OBCs to the Maharashtra State Commission for Backward Classes (MSCBC) to examine its correctness and make recommendations on their representation in elections for the local bodies. The apex court also directed the MSCBC to submit the interim report to the authorities concerned in two of receiving information from the state government.

Subsequently, the government handed over the data to the MSCBC and requested an interim report at the earliest. After analyzing the data, the MSCBC, in its 35-page interim report given in February, recommended providing up to 27 per cent reservation to OBCs.

However, the SC rejected it, stating that it had been prepared in the “absence of empirical data”. “The report itself mentions that the same is being prepared in absence of empirical study and research by the Commission. failed to do so, the Commission should not have filed the interim report,” the Bench of Justices AM Khanwilkar and CT Ravikumar said.

“As a result, it is not possible to permit any authority, much less the State Election Commission, to act upon the recommendations made in the said report. For the time being, we do not intend to dilate on the correctness of each of the observations made by the commission in the interim report. We, however, direct all concerned not to act upon the interim report as submitted,” the court said.

What is the legal position in the case of Maharashtra now?

On May 4, the Supreme Court asked the Maharashtra State Election Commission to notify the election schedule for local bodies within two weeks on the basis of the previous delimitation exercise, rejecting the argument that it can be done only after fresh delimitation is done by the state government.

The Bench said that since the five-year term of around 2,486 local bodies in the state had expired and elections were required to be conducted under the provisions of the Constitution as well as the Maharashtra Municipal Corporation Act, the exercise “cannot brook any delay” .

Subsequently, the state election commission filed an affidavit stating that it was not possible to hold elections due to the monsoon, and told the top court that the elections of the urban local bodies and rural local bodies would be held in September and October respectively.

After the SC asked the SEC to hold the elections in the areas that receive less rainfall, the SEC submitted before the SC that it would “commence the process forthwith in respect of areas/districts which may not be affected by monsoon and even if after the Notification, if the situation warrants so, the schedule can be modulated appropriately district-wise and local body-wise”.

The matter is listed for its next hearing on July 12.

What was the “triple test” prescribed by the SC, and under what circumstances?

On March 4 last year, the SC read down Section 12(2)(c) of The Maharashtra Zilla Parishads and Panchayat Samitis Act, 1961 as an enabling provision that may be invoked only upon complying with three conditions before notifying the seats reserved for OBC category in the concerned local bodies. Section 12(2)(c) deals with reserving 27 per cent seats in Zilla Parishads for OBCs.

The triple conditions to empirically establish the need for OBC quota were 1) a state commission must “conduct contemporaneous rigorous empirical inquiry into the nature and implications of the backwardness qua local bodies, within the state”; 2) specify the proportion of reservation required to be provisioned local body wise in light of recommendations of the commission; and 3) total “reservation (must) not exceed the total of 50% of the seats.”

Why are states so keen to hold these elections — and what is the problem with collecting the OBC data?

In Maharashtra, elections to five municipal corporations were deferred for almost two years due to the Covid-19. The terms of 10 municipal corporations, 25 Zilla Parishads along with municipal councils, Panchayat Samitis and Gram Panchayats, ended in March and April this year. The MVA government is keen to hold elections to these local bodies with an OBC quota.

Sources in the government claimed that for gathering the empirical data for providing OBC quota, the door-to-door survey does not seem feasible, as it could lead to a slew of social issues in the future in the state. “When the Karnataka government’s data of caste census was leaked, the dominant groups questioned the findings and opposed the state government move of making it public. So, the same could happen in our state and the communities could be pitted against each other for no reason. It may disturb the social fabric of the state,” said a source.

The data from the Karnataka government’s socio-economic survey was leaked in 2016, revealing that the number of Vokkaligas and Lingayats was lesser than previously assumed. Subsequently, both communities staged protests against the report, casting doubt on its veracity.

“The union government has the authority to conduct a caste census but it has refused to do so. If the Centre, despite having the power, refuses to do the caste census, then such an exercise by the state government will be questioned by any community in case the survey reveals that the population of any community is less than what they believe or assume. The entire exercise will be futile,” the source added.

Where does this matter go here onward?

The MVA government intends to submit a report of the empirical data on the lines of the Madhya Pradesh government.

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“The Supreme Court has allowed OBC reservation in Madhya Pradesh. Therefore, we have started immediate efforts in the state as well. The Jayant Banthia Committee has been appointed, and its work is in progress. We will put forth our stand in the SC when the Committee’s report comes out in June along the same lines as Madhya Pradesh,” Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar has said.

After the SC rejected the interim report of the MSCBC, the MVA government, in March, set up a six-member headed by former chief Secretary Banthia to prepare a report on the political backwardness of the OBCs in the state to provide them reservation in the local bodies. The government has given three months to the commission to submit the report.

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