New Year edition
We're back from hibernation, highlighting some of the biggest legal developments from the end of 2020!
Apex Court Weekly is a weekly round-up of judgments, petitions, orders and notices as they develop at the Supreme Court of India (“the Court”). We also occasionally cover High Courts. We cover some stories that gather national attention and some that should. This update is written by Rahul Srivastava, J.D. candidate at Cornell Law School, and supported by the Cornell India Law Center.
A Note to our readers
Happy New Year! Thank you for making ACW a part of your 2020. The Christmas holidays and exam season at Cornell Law School halted production for the past month and change. However, we went back in time and covered our tracks. We’ve published an edition for each week we missed! This post compiles the CAN’T MISS sections from each of those editions (barring the December 21 edition, when the Court was on vacation). We’ll be back to our regular posts from this weekend. All the best for 2021!
From the Week of December 21, 2020
Best of 2020 edition: 10 COVID orders
The world will remember 2020 for principally one reason: COVID-19. While the central and state governments were the principal managers of the pandemic, the Court passed a slew of orders to help ensure effective administration. This article lists 10 orders passed by the Court related to COVID-19. The Court's various orders went beyond the health sphere, and affected the various rights issues implicated by the government's decisions.
From the Week of December 14, 2020
Merit still matters
In Saurav Yadav v. State of Uttar Pradesh, the Court ruled against general communal reservation, and reserved a place for merit in selecting candidates for government positions. The Court conceded that a more meritorious candidate from the general pool may lose out to fill the government's quota requirements, but maintained that there would be no place for identity considerations in the general pool.
The State of Uttar Pradesh essentially argued that a candidate for public employment eligible under quotas could not apply through the general pool on their merits. Justice Bhat's concurring opinion rejected that claim. If that argument was accepted, then each social group would be confined to their assigned quotas, and meritorious candidates would lose out. Perversely, applicants with less merit would be selected in the open category.
The case concerned female applicants for police constable in Uttar Pradesh who were denied despite securing higher marks than the last admitted candidate in the general category. The Court directed the Uttar Pradesh government to appoint these applicants as constables.
Uber and Ola are not colluding
Antitrust probes against Big Tech companies are raging around the world, including in the U.S., E.U. and China. Recently, the Competition Commission of India ("CCI") had declared that ride-hailing services Uber and Ola were not colluding by engaging in price-fixing. The applicant before the CCI had alleged that the algorithms that mandated ride fares effectively created a cartel between the two companies.
On December 15, in Samir Agarwal v. Competition Commission of India, the Court affirmed the CCI decision. Uber noted that drivers operate independently, and can negotiate with riders privately, or via either the Uber or Ola apps. The independent discretion that thousands of drivers could exercise made any large-scale collusion implausible.
Much of the opinion discussed whether the applicant had standing to bring the case before the CCI. The Court permitted the applicant to bring such cases before the CCI. However, given that the competition tribunals did not find facts supporting collusion, the Court swiftly dismissed the case.
From the Week of December 7, 2020
Court enters Central Vista project
In another example of the Court's plenary jurisdiction, the Court stayed construction on the new buildings that would seat the Indian government and Parliament from 2022 and 2024 respectively.
First announced in 2019, the revamp of India's Parliament and Central Secretariat is set to cost $2.2 billion. The construction will include a new Parliament, new buildings for ministries, and a new Prime Minister's office and residence. The government argues that the early 20th century buildings are ill-equipped to handle the demands of a modern government.
Critics argue that the project threatens India's heritage, carries environmental risks, lacks transparency, and inappropriately allocates important funds during this time. Anuj Srivastava, an architect and former Army officer who's one of the petitioners before the Court said that the project "[D]eals with the most iconic space in the country in a very unplanned manner".
While halting construction, the Court permitted the government to lay the ceremonial foundation and continue with the "necessary procedural processes"– such as paperwork– necessary to begin construction. During oral arguments, the Court observed surprise at the speed with which the government was proceeding with construction.
We will update the case as it develops at the Court.
From the Week of November 30, 2020
The Court upholds the Goods and Services Tax on lotteries
A petitioner challenged regulating lotteries as a "good" under the Goods and Services Act 2017 ("GST") in Skill Lotto Solutions Pvt. Ltd. V. Union of India. Conceding a rare deferral to government decision-making, the Court reasoned that the judiciary does not have a serious role in assessing tax policy.
The petitioner, an authorized dealer of lotteries in Punjab, argued that lotteries could not be goods and were merely 'actionable items'. He contended that lotteries were just pieces of paper and devoid of any value. The GST on lotteries was discriminatory because it levied 12% tax on lotteries sold from the same state, and 28% of lotteries sold from different states.
The Court noted that Parliament included lotteries, gambling, and betting as actionable items subject to taxation– a policy that had existed for decades. As Parliament did not include other actionable items, then the decision to include the other three was deliberate and reasoned.
From the Week of November 23, 2020
COVID updates from the Court
Starting from our edition in June, we've regularly discussed the Court's role in managing the pandemic in India. Utilizing its suo motu powers, the Court this week chastised state governments in Delhi, Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Assam over their handling of the pandemic. The Court singled out Delhi in particular, telling its lawyers that "Delhi has to answer for a lot of things."
As the Court noted that stricter control measures were needed, the Central government said that the current spike in these states was "harsher than the first one". The government informed the Court that 77% of new cases were confined to 10 states. Perhaps deliberately or as a coincidence, the Prime Minister virtually met with all Chief Ministers and stressed that providing a vaccine is the government's "national commitment".
The Court asked the state governments to provide a status report on their progress.
The Court allows the media to cover alleged corruption
On September 15, the Andhra Pradesh High Court ordered the media to refrain from reporting on an FIR registered with the Andhra Pradesh police. The order asked the FIR to not be made public in "any electronic, print, or social media". The FIR concerned illegal land transactions involved in shifting Andhra Pradesh's capital to the new city of Amaravati.
This week, the Court intervened in the case and stayed the High Court's order. Notably, the Court did not stay other orders passed by the Court, including a stay of the FIR filed with Andhra Pradesh police. The Court listed the matter to be heard again in the last week of January and asked the High Court to not decide on the case until then.