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What creamy layer is & why Supreme Court kept affluent SC, ST members out of quota benefits

The issue has again hit headlines after Modi govt demanded review of a 2018 Supreme Court verdict that excluded creamy layer in SCs, STs from quota benefits.

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New Delhi: The Narendra Modi government’s demand for a review of a 2018 Supreme Court verdict in Jarnail Singh vs Lachhmi Narain Gupta case has brought focus back on the exclusion of ‘creamy layer’ within the Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) categories from reservation benefits.

Asserting that the creamy layer concept, which distinguishes between the affluent among disadvantaged sections, should not apply to SCs/STs, the central government has demanded that the matter be referred to a seven-judge bench. 

But what does creamy layer mean?

The concept has its genesis in a 1992 Supreme Court judgment in the Indira Sawhney vs Union of India case. Since then, two other significant Supreme Court judgments — one in M. Nagaraj vs Union of India and another in the Jarnail Singh case — have laid down the law in this regard. ThePrint explains.

The Mandal Commission case

The Mandal Commission was set up in 1979 under Article 340 of the Constitution by the Janata Party government when Morarji Desai was prime minister with a mandate to “identify the socially or educationally backwards”. It laid down 11 indicators or criteria for determining social and economic backwardness. 

In light of this report, the government provided 27 per cent reservation in central government jobs for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in 1990. 

This was challenged in the Supreme Court by several writ petitions. 

A nine-judge bench in the Indira Sawhney case had upheld reservations for OBCs in 1992, but ruled that creamy layer among the backward class of citizens must be excluded “by fixation of proper income, property or status criteria” by the central government. 

The court asserted that on these specifications, people falling in the creamy layer would not get the benefit of reservations. The Supreme Court also held that reservations in appointments — under Article 16(4) of the Constitution — do not apply to promotions.

Also read: 30 OBCs who cleared 2017 UPSC exam not given services for ‘hiding their high income’

The 1993 creamy layer norms

Following the SC judgment, the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) had laid down categories under the creamy layer in 1993.

According to the 1993 order, sons and daughters of Group A/Class I Officers of All India Central and State Services (direct recruits), Group B/Class II Officers of Central and State Services (direct recruits), employees of Public Sector Undertakings etc. and armed forces fall within the creamy layer, and, therefore, they would not be entitled to reservation benefits. 

The order also included within the creamy layer sons and daughters of people with a gross annual income of Rs 1 lakh above or possessing wealth above the exemption limit as prescribed under the Wealth Tax Act for a period of three consecutive years.

It, however, clarified that income from salaries and agricultural land will not be clubbed, and asserted that the income criteria in terms of rupee will be modified taking into account the change in its value every three years.

However, the ceiling has been revised only four times since 1993 — the last time it happened was in September 2017 when the cap was raised to Rs 8 lakh per annum.

Also read: OBC sub-categorisation is a rehash of BJP’s venomous anti-creamy layer game

The amendments that followed

Meanwhile, in order to change the effect of the judgment in the Indira Sawhney case, there were some amendments to enable the government to make laws regarding reservation in promotion for SCs and STs.

The first of these amendments was when the Parliament enacted the Constitution (77th Amendment) Act, 1995, inserting Article 16(4A), thereby enabling the government to make laws providing quota in promotion for SCs and STs.

Article 16(4B) was also inserted, providing that reserved promotion posts for SCs and STs that remain unfilled can be carried forward to the subsequent year. While the SC judgement in the Indira Sawhney case capped the reservation quota at 50 per cent, the government’s amendment ensured that the 50 per cent ceiling for these carried-forward unfilled posts does not apply to subsequent years.

Another instance was when Article 335 of the Constitution was amended during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government in 2001. While Article 335 specified that reservations have to be balanced with the “maintenance of efficiency”, the 2001 amendment stated that the Article will not apply to the government if it relaxes evaluation standards in matters of promotion.

‘Maintenance of efficiency’ is a constitutional limitation on the discretion of the government in making reservation in promotion for SCs and STs.

Creamy layer to SCs & STs

These amendments led to the 2006 Supreme Court judgment in M. Nagaraj vs Union of India, where a five-judge bench approved Parliament’s decision to extend reservations for SCs and STs to include promotions with three conditions.

It required the government to provide proof for the backwardness of the class benefitting from the reservation, for its inadequate representation in the position/service for which reservation in promotion is to be granted and to show how reservations in promotions would further administrative efficiency.

The judgment also held that the creamy layer concept was applicable to SCs and STs. 

Creamy layer shouldn’t bag all coveted jobs: SC

The M. Nagaraj case judgment was challenged in the Jarnail Singh case via two reference orders, the latest one having been issued in November 2017, stating that it needed to be referred to a seven-judge bench.

The top court refused to refer it to a larger bench, asserting that even though it had not expressly chosen to apply the creamy layer principle to SCs and STs in its verdict in the Indira Sawhney case, the principle can still be applied in view of the principles of equality enshrined in Constitution.

The court also asserted that the SC and high courts would be well within their jurisdiction to exclude creamy layer from getting reservations, rejecting the central government’s submissions that only the Parliament can exclude or include people from SC/ST lists. 

“The whole object of reservation is to see that backward classes of citizens move forward so that they may march hand in hand with other citizens of India on an equal basis. This will not be possible if only the creamy layer within that class bag all the coveted jobs in the public sector and perpetuate themselves, leaving the rest of the class as backward as they always were,” it observed.

Also read: Creamy layer cannot be applied to deny benefits of quota in promotions: Centre to SC


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  1. Creamy Layer concept should apply for all the group whether it is OBC/SC/ST, but the same is not happening now. I find for SC/ST Category, no university is demanding (NCL) Certificate, what does that mean, it is not applicable for them. Why so?
    It is very intriguing, Govt should must intervene into thas (Leaving aside their political gain) . I do belong to OBC category but what I am finding is that it is only being misutilized.
    Medical and IIT must be removed from any kind of reservation.
    Let’s take an example: Someone becomes doctor while taking the use of SC/ST quota (Even his parents belongs to NCL, but since it is not applicable for him , he takes the advantage of this and becomes doctor). Now, the same person (i.e. Doctor) applies for seats in Govt for employment and becomes Govt employe. And he will again take the advange of reservation in promotion, and supersede his seniors and will continue to take the adv of reservaation for his kids too. Because, there is no such column’s demanding NCL Certificates for SC/ST.
    It is now Govt to intervene and stop this flaw and let NCL certification be included for even SC/ST.
    No Promotion on the basis of Caste for any category. Let one to clear his promotion exam for further improvement.

  2. Supreme Court of India has rightly held that the Creamy Layer theory should be applied to SC and ST category, like that of OBC category and EWS category, for the reason, the poor people of SC and ST category can be benefited, and the Creamy Layer person’s income is more than Rs. 8 Lakh per year, and keeping in mind, Buddhist Theory ‘Bhavtu Sabba Mangalam’, and Articles 341 and 342 of the Constitution of India.

  3. Supreme court does not really know the details of SC -ST living conditions. We are not getting government jobs or in private company. Skill development in any field is out dated. Expense of living in India is getting higher. For a clerks, engineer,and in private jobs salary is very less, considering the expense. Creamy layer does not solve the problem. Even Today SC ST development is not yet happening,in government .

    • They are general category people who are also poor with no reservation and relaxtion or economic relief for fees. If you dont get a job its because you dont have the skills irrespective of your caste. Many people are suffering. Atleast SC,ST and OBC get various schemes. General don’t. Recently they got EWS.
      I am an OBC. I think creamy layer should be applied to all, many poor reserved category need a chance to grow and its possible only after the people of economic stable reserved category move aside. Many reserved category i know work in Government jobs, its great. But their children should work on merit to get a job not a quota. Its time we reform.

      Medical profession should be freed from reservation. It needd brain not caste

  4. The judgement of M.nagaraj case on applicability of creamy layer concepts for sc, St was only meant for in promotion or both in promotion as well as at entry level ? Please clarify

    • Creamy layer concept has to be applied in general. Both 2006 and 2018 judgements have upheld this principle. Though still not enforced it per se.

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