In the recent case of V. Surendra Mohan vs. State of Tamil Nadu, the Supreme Court upheld the State’s policy of restricting the eligibility of blind and deaf candidates for the reserved posts of civil judge to those with 40-50% of their respective disabilities. It held that this is “reasonable, just and fair” and that it does not contravene any of the provisions of the Disabilities Act 1995 or any other statutory provision.
In 2012, the Tamil Nadu Public Service Commission received a requisition from the State Government for filling up the vacancy posts of Civil Judge. The Commission wrote a letter to both the State Government as well as the High Court proposing to notify the percentage of disability as 40%-50% for partially blind and partially deaf for selection. The High Court communicated its approval to the aforesaid proposal which was also consented to by the State of Tamil Nadu. The TNPC went ahead with the notification.
V. Surendra Mohan applied for the role of civil judge. His application was rejected on the basis that he was 70% blind. He challenged this decision at the Madras High Court upon which he was permitted to sit for the interview. Following this interview, Mohan’s application was again rejected. As a result, Mohan filed a writ petition in the Madras High Court. In 2015, the High Court held that the TNPC’s decision was lawful as it was in line with the State’s policy.
In 2019, Mohan appealed to the Supreme Court, challenging the rejection of his application as well as the policy on the basis of which his application was rejected. He argued that the policy is arbitrary and unjustified.
The Bench comprising Justice Ashok Bhushan and Justice KM Joseph rejected this submission. It said that “a judicial officer in a State has to possess reasonable limit of the faculties of hearing, sight and speech in order to hear cases and write judgments and, therefore, stipulating a limit of 50% disability in hearing impairment or visual impairment as a condition to be eligible for the post is a legitimate restriction”.
The Supreme Court’s view that a totally blind person cannot thrive as a judge is undermined by several examples of successful judges who are blind. All that is required for such judges to thrive are reasonable accommodations, which employers are required to undertake by law. Further, neither the State government, the High Court nor the Supreme Court have given any reasons as to why the appropriate cut-off is 50% disability. No evidence has been provided that suggests that this is the threshold beyond which candidates would be unable to effectively perform their duties. As such the policy appears to indeed be arbitrary.
In its 22nd January 2019 judgement, the Supreme Court had set deadlines to make public places accessible to persons with visual impairment. It had said that “it becomes imperative to provide such facilities so that these persons also are ensured level playing field and not only they are able to enjoy life meaningfully, they contribute to the progress of the nation as well.” A year later, the Supreme Court has backtracked on its own ruling by depriving some candidates of this level playing field without an adequate reason for doing so.
This post was written by CLPR Equality Fellow IR Jayalakshmi