Horizontal Reservations, Merit List and the Supreme Court

[Editor’s Note: The Supreme Court’s approach on merit and efficiency of administration in the cases of the reservation is not a correct approach conceptually and philosophically, and such an approach leads to deflection from the values of the constitution and compromise the struggle for constitutional justice. This approach is based on the view that reservations and merit are opposed to each, instead, there is a need to balance the two.]

The decision of the Apex Court’s full-bench in Saurav Yadav v. State of UP (2020) discusses the horizontal and vertical reservations. In this post, the author will be discussing the judgment of the court, which in his opinion is correct, and vertical and horizontal reservations.

The facts of the case are: the State Government kept criteria that if a male candidate belonging to SC/ST/OBC Category secures higher marks than the general/unreserved cut-off list, then he would be selected as under the unreserved category and it will not affect the reserved quotas. But the same yardstick does not apply to the female candidates appearing for the same exam as female candidates have their horizontal quotas in their respective categories. Hence, the aggrieved parties approached the Court to enforce their rights. The issue which arose, in this case, is whether the OBC category applicant who secured more marks than the general category female candidate must be selected as under unreserved-female candidate or not. To answer this issue, let us try to understand the concepts of Vertical and Horizontal Reservations.

Vertical and Horizontal Reservations

Justice Reddy in the case of Indira Sawhney v. Union of India (812) explained the concept of vertical and horizontal reservation as:

“The reservations in favour of SC/ST/OBC [under Article 16(4)] may be called vertical reservations whereas reservations in favour of physically handicapped [under clause (1) of Article 16] can be referred to as horizontal reservations. Horizontal reservations cut across the vertical reservations— what is called interlocking reservations. To be more precise, suppose 3% of the vacancies are reserved in favour of physically handicapped persons; this would be a reservation relatable to clause (1) of Article 16. The persons selected against this quota will be placed in the appropriate category; if he belongs to SC category he will be placed in that quota by making necessary adjustments; similarly, if he belongs to open competition (OC) category, he will be placed in that category by making necessary adjustments. Even after providing for these horizontal reservations, the percentage of reservations in favour of a backward class of citizens remains — and should remain— the same.”

The reservations made for physically handicapped, women, etc. is made under Article 16(1) or 15(3)—which are ‘horizontal reservations‘ and the reservations made in the favour of SC/ST/OBCs are under Article 16(4)—which are ‘vertical reservations‘. The candidates belonging to the horizontal category, such as women, physically handicapped are proportionately adjusted in the vertical (social) quotas, either in the general or reserved categories (Swati Gupta v. the State of UP, in 3). The Court further explained, filling up seats, in the case of Anil Kumar Gupta v. the State of UP, that there are two types of horizontal reservation: overall reservation and compartmental reservation. In overall reservation the procedure for filling up the seats is as follows (18): “The proper and correct course is to first fill up the OC quota (50%) based on merit; then fill up each of the social reservation quotas, i.e., SC, ST and BC; the third step would be to find out how many candidates belonging to special reservations have been selected on the above basis. If the quota fixed for horizontal reservations is already satisfied — in case it is an overall horizontal reservation—no further question arises.” But if there is a compartmental reservation, that is, to say the reservation for SC/ST/OBC is 50% and general is 50%. Then, in total female candidates have 30% reservation. That 30% reservation, in the compartmental reservation, is to be reserved proportionately in different categories. For example: out of 100 seats, 15 seats are reserved for SC category, 7 for ST category, 27 for OBC category and 51 for the unreserved category. But now female candidates have 30 seats and they can be from any category, so in a compartmental reservation, a defined number of seats are allocated for women in each category, for instance, 15% of the 30 seats for women (approx. 4 seats) are adjusted within the SC Category. So, after horizontal reservation, under SC Category out of 15 seats, 4 are reserved for SC-Female candidates. If the seats to be reserved for women are 4 in SC category out of 15, then SC-vertical reservation quota will be, first, filled by SC candidates (both women and men), if in those 15 seats, there are already 4 women, then there is no need to apply horizontal reservation for SC category, but if there are not 4 women candidates based on merit, then male candidates (last in the list) need to be removed to fulfil 4 women seats (R.K. Daria v. Rajasthan Public Service Commission, 10). But the question herein arises that whether the meritorious candidates from reserved categories be allowed to compete in the open category? If yes, then what about those meritorious candidates who are reserved vertically as well as horizontally?

Can horizontally and vertically reserved candidates compete in the open-horizontally reserved category?

The Supreme Court in the case of R.K. Daria explained the nature of vertical reservation as (9):

Where a vertical reservation is made in favour of a Backward Class under Article 16(4), the candidates belonging to such Backward Class, may compete for non-reserved posts and if they are appointed to the non-reserved posts on their own merit, their number will not be counted against the quota reserved for respective Backward Class.

It is not like communal reservations where a candidate of a particular community will compete for a particular reserved seat only, the candidates from SC/ST/OBC, if they choose to compete in the open category, then their selection will not affect the existing reserved seats under SC/ST/OBC categories (Indira Sawhney, 735). Nonetheless, will this principle apply to horizontal categories as well. Now, the author will analyse the precedents related to horizontal reservation and merit lists.

In the case of Megha Shetty v. the State of Rajasthan, the  Rajasthan High Court in 24 clarifies that if a candidate belonging to reserved category (woman) secures higher marks than a candidate belonging to general category (woman), and therefore, finds a place in select merit list meant for general (woman) category, then it is not migration from reserved to unreserved. That woman candidate will be selected under the unreserved category only. This proposition was accepted in another case of Neelam Sharma v. the State of Rajasthan by the High Court of Rajasthan and when that case went to appeal in SLP No. 4312 of 2016, it was rightly dismissed by the Apex Court. A candidate belonging to backward class cannot be restricted from competing under the ‘open category’, irrespective of vertical or horizontal reservation. The open category means ‘open to all’ and it cannot be interpreted otherwise (Bombay High Court in Asha Gholap v. The President, DSC in 32). This will not diminish the seats reserved for SC/ST/OBC in their respective categories (Charushila v. the State of Maharashtra, Bombay High Court)

Application to the Present Case

In the present case, where the applicants (women) are being denied selection in the open categories, unlike male candidates, is discriminatory against them as the same yardstick is not applied to them as applied to male candidates, which is also held to be discriminatory and irrational in the case of Kanchan Vishwanath Jagtap v. Maharashtra Administrative Tribunal (Bombay High Court, 2016) which relied on Indira Sawhney. Even in compartmentalized reservations, the open category is for all, irrespective of their social category. But the vice versa is not true, that means, an open category woman candidate (general) cannot compete on SC/ST/OBC seats reserved for women.

Surprisingly and unfortunately, the Allahabad high court in Ajay Kumar v. the State of UP (2019) has taken a different view from above, stating that: “To our mind, inter-se merit of women has no role to play in the implementation of horizontal reservation as the socially reserved candidate (SC, ST, & OBC) seeking the benefit of reservation of special category (women) cannot claim adjustment in the open category.” This view was also taken by Uttrakhand High Court. This means that at the stage of providing horizontal reservation, the open general category “is to be construed as category meant for candidates other than those coming from any categories reserved vertically, that is, ST/SC/OBC.”

Further, this will lead to unequal treatment of meritorious candidates who are on the same footing. This will create inefficiency and chaos as the less meritorious candidates will be selected, as witnessed in the present case. Further, this view is not supported by any precedents of the Court and hence, it is discarded by the Supreme Court in the Sourav Yadav (present case) as ‘irrational’. Whereas the decisions of the Rajasthan and Bombay High Courts are declared as correct and rational.


In the present case, the applicants are more meritorious than those selected under the open category (woman), but still, the government disregarded their claims and said they can only and only compete under their vertically reserved category (that is, OBC). The Court held that in ¶30,

 “Subject to any permissible reservations i.e. either Social (Vertical) or Special (Horizontal), opportunities to public employment and selection of candidates must purely be based on merit. Any selection which results in candidates getting selected against Open/General category with less merit than the other available candidates [in reserved categories—SC/ST/OBC] will certainly be opposed to principles of equality.

By applying the principles enunciated in the case of Megha Shetty, Charushila and Indira Sawhney, the apex court in this case (Saurav Yadav) held that denial of the claims of the applicant is unconstitutional and they must be selected under the open category as they have secured more marks than the cut off list prepared for the open category. Furthermore, the correct procedure for selecting candidates, in future as per the Supreme Court, in the final merit list (consisting of open/SC/ST/OBC) is best illustrated by the 2019 Gujarat High Court in the case of Tamannben Ashokbhai Desai v. Shital Amrutlal Nishar as it deals with every possible situation that could arise in the future about the allocation of seats to horizontally and vertically reserved-meritorious candidates (this procedure will be dealt by the author in the coming posts). Therefore, this full-bench judgment of the Supreme Court in Saurav Yadav clarifies the position of selecting candidates who are reserved horizontally and in my opinion is correct.

[The author would like to thank Aatika Singh for her comments.]