Reservations in India: Rethinking the 50% Ceiling and Caste Surveys

Reservations in India: Rethinking the 50% Ceiling and Caste Surveys

Reservations in India: Rethinking the 50% Ceiling and Caste Surveys


The release of the caste survey data by the Bihar government, revealing that the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), Scheduled Castes (SCs), and Scheduled Tribes (STs) constitute approximately 84% of the population, rekindles the discussion regarding the 50% reservation cap set by the Supreme Court in the Indra Sawhney case of 1992.


GS-02, GS-01 (Population and Associated Issues) (Government Policies & Interventions)


Census, Socio-Economic and Caste Census, Rohini commission

Mains Question:

Discuss the implications of the Bihar caste survey data on the 50% ceiling for caste-based reservations, as set by the Supreme Court in the Indra Sawhney case of 1992. (10 marks, 150 words).

Dimensions of the Article:

  • 50% Reservation Ceiling
  • Historical Context of Reservation Limit
  • Socio-Economic Data and Caste Categories
  • Concept of Representation According to Population
  • Caste Census and Fragmented Polity

50% Reservation Ceiling:

  • The 50% reservation limit is viewed by many as arbitrary since it lacks substantive numerical justification.
  • States like Tamil Nadu already provide 69% reservation through a 1994 law, safeguarded from judicial review by inclusion in the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution.
  • The introduction of 10% reservation for Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) by the Central government surpasses the 50% ceiling, further questioning the validity of this cap.

Historical Context of Reservation Limit:

  • The 50% ceiling for reservations in government jobs was established with limited reasoning in past judgments.
  • The N.M. Thomas case (1976) saw the Supreme Court questioning the rationality of the 50% limit, yet it became a fundamental right in the Mandal case (Indra Sawhney).
  • Revising this limit requires a principled stance and could hinge on the readiness of a significant state like Bihar to challenge it legally.

Socio-Economic Data and Caste Categories:

  • The release of socio-economic data is crucial as it can lead to requests for reshaping caste categories.
  • The OBC category encompasses diverse castes, with some being economically advanced, potentially sidelining the more disadvantaged.
  • There is a conceptual issue concerning the classification of OBCs, as it lacks clarity and may necessitate significant jurisprudential reconsideration.

Concept of Representation According to Population:

  • Political slogans advocating “representation according to population” may prompt individual caste groups to demand specific reservations based on their numbers.
  • These demands could have significant implications, potentially leading to sub-categorization and questions about the inclusion of certain castes on the list.

Caste Census and Fragmented Polity:

  • Critics are concerned that a caste-based census may intensify caste identities and create a divided polity.
  • However, the existence of these identities is undeniable, even if not officially documented.
  • The discourse should shift to addressing the diminishing availability of government jobs and the size of the job pie for equitable distribution.

Way Forward:

  • A comprehensive reconsideration of the 50% reservation ceiling is necessary, with a legal challenge supported by pertinent data and a favorable political environment.
  • Sub-categorization within the OBC category should be examined, promoting the inclusion of underrepresented communities.
  • The discourse on reservations should extend to discussing the shrinking pool of available jobs.


The release of caste survey data in Bihar ignites the debate surrounding the 50% reservation limit imposed by the Supreme Court. While concerns about the potential accentuation of caste identities and fragmentation of the polity exist, addressing the existing realities is essential. A nuanced approach to the reservation system, supported by comprehensive data and principled legal action, can pave the way for equitable representation and social justice in India.