“Article 16 of the Constitution of India is a bundle of contradictions, as on the one hand it deals with equality of opportunity in matters of public employment, and, on the other, it enables the government to provide for reservation in public employment.” Comment.
Article 16 of the Constitution is part of the Fundamental Rights and provides for equality in the matters of employment in public employment. Many people feel that this Article, instead of equality in these matters, perpetuates the inequalities and offers a framework of contradiction. The Fundamental Rights should ideally provide the measures vide which the equality is ensured but the exceptions provided to this right overweigh the right provided.
Article 16 provides that there shall be equality of opportunity for all citizens in the matters of employment or appointment to any office under the State. This Article also provides that no citizen shall be ineligible for any office or employment under the State on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, descent, place of birth or any of them. After having stated the above, several exceptions are also provided for. Place of residence may be laid down by the legislature as a condition for particular classes of employment or appointment in any State or any local authority. Further, the State may reserve any post or appointment in favour of any backward class of citizens, who, in the opinion of the State, are not adequately represented in the services under that State. In addition, the offices connected with the religious or denominated institutions may be reserved for the members practicing that particular religion.
The most important and controversial exception pertains to the provisions of Article 16(4) relating to the claims of the members of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities in the matters of appointment to the services and posts under the Union and the States, to be consistent with efficiency in administration as far as possible (Article 335). The Supreme Court has held that while the provisions of Article 16(4) are without any limitation upon the power of reservation, yet it has to be read with the provisions of Article 335 for maintenance of efficiency in administration. The Apex Court also held that the total reservation under Article 16(4) should not exceed 50 per cent.
Detailed study of the provisions of the Article 16 reveals that while originally this Article aimed at protecting the rights of common man with regard to equality of opportunity but gradually, due to the need felt by the government to extend the benefit of reservation to the other backward classes and also the political considerations, its focus has now shifted to providing the benefit of reservation to the backward classes and the SC/ST. But one thing has been confirmed that the extension of the benefit cannot be arbitrary.
Various pronouncements of the Supreme Court of India during the past almost six decades have plugged the gaps in the provisions of this Article and also provided a standard framework for extending the benefit of reservation in future to any other categories. The measures that looked to be controversial initially have also been settled by the judgments of the highest court of law in the country.