Image description: A person standing at a podium, with a banner reading ‘Accessible India Campaign’.
In human rights disputes, courts may be called on to resolve the clash between the rights of an individual on the one hand and the collective good on the other. These conflicts are arguably amongst the hardest for human rights courts to adjudicate, as they bring into focus the scope of judicial review in human rights cases, the need for a court to outline its conception of human rights, and the extent to which grand theoretical precepts can be applied to messy and complicated practical realities. A recent Indian Supreme Court case brought these issues to the fore.
The facts of Avni Prakash versus National Testing Agency and Ors. are disturbing. Prakash, the Appellant before the Supreme Court, is affected by writer’s cramp, a disorder that prevents an individual from writing in a consistent and coherent fashion. As per Guidelines issued by the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment in the Government of India, candidates like Prakash are entitled to at least one hour of compensatory time for a 3 hour exam. Prakash appeared for the National Eligibility-Cum-Entrance Test [NEET] for admission to a medical college at the undergraduate level. In this case, despite being initially assured that she would be provided the prescribed reasonable accommodations, Prakash was not granted compensatory time of an hour, and her paper was confiscated after only three hours.
When Prakash challenged this decision in the Bombay High Court, the National Testing Agency [NTA], which conducted the exam, argued that she needed to furnish a prescribed certificate from a centre recognised by the NTA in order to claim compensatory time. Even after it came to light that the NTA was mistaken, as the Prescribed Certificate only has to be furnished at the time of seeking admission, the High Court refused to grant Prakash any relief. Worse still, the High Court almost suggested that she was fabricating her disability, by terming her disability status ‘purported’.
The Supreme Court accepted Prakash’s argument that the Prescribed Certificate has to be furnished at the stage of admission rather than the exam. This becomes clear from the fact that a candidate must disclose her rank in the NEET exam prior to the issuance of the certificate. Further, the Supreme Court held that the exam centre’s failure to provide Prakash compensatory time was attributable to it not knowing about this accommodation. Three other features of the Court’s judgment merit emphasis: firstly, the Court viewed the grant of compensatory time as a component of reasonable accommodation and inclusive education. Importantly, viewing the matter through this lens foregrounds the appellant’s legal entitlements.
Secondly, in its concluding observations on India, the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities called for the need to adopt a human rights model in the assessment and certification of disabilities. It emphasised that multiple assessments should not create an undue burden for applicants. By carefully scrutinising the additional assessment requirement superimposed by the NTA, in addition to the regular requirement of furnishing a disability certificate, the Court found that this additional requirement was not supported by the information bulletin issued by the NTA itself. This is a positive step in the direction of ensuring that unclear and unduly burdensome screening mechanisms do not result in the deprivation of lawful entitlements of the disabled.
Finally, the Court did not merely articulate the need to view the individual as the main unit of human rights protection, but actually applied this concept to the case at hand. It rejected the NTA’s argument that, because the result of the NEET exam has already been declared, Prakash must be left without remedies, as compensating her would disturb the ranks of candidates placed above her. Indeed, accepting this submission would have resulted in Prakash’s rights being ‘sent into oblivion’. The Court therefore obligated the NTA to formulate and report an appropriate remedy for the situation. It is hoped that this judgment will thus pave the way for people with disabilities to obtain their legally-entitled accommodations more easily, reducing the need for such judicial intervention in the future.