The public distribution system (PDS) is meant to play a key role in disbursing government support to the poorest Indians during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. However, the system leaves more than 100 million people excluded from its reach, as per academics Jean Drèze, Reetika Khera and Meghana Mungikar, because the central government uses 2011 population figures from the last census to calculate state-wise PDS coverage.

Under the National Food Security Act (NFSA), the PDS is supposed to cover 75% of the population in rural areas and 50% in urban areas, which comes to 67% of the total population. The corresponding state-wise ratios were worked out using National Sample Survey data, in such a manner that poorer states got higher coverage (for example, close to 90% in Jharkhand) and richer states (say, Punjab and Kerala) got lower coverage.

When the NFSA came into force in 2013, the 2011 census population figures were recent. “However, the numbers should have been updated from time to time using projected population figures,” Dreze, Khera and Mungikar said in an email, in which they included their own population projections and calculations to arrive at state-wise and all-India exclusions.

If the central government used updated numbers, it would have enabled state governments to issue new ration cards over time, they said. Instead, the number of persons to be covered in each state has remained frozen. State governments are reluctant to issue ration cards beyond what is provided for by the central government, they said, adding that this perpetuates exclusion errors in the PDS.

Using the example of Jharkhand, they said, the state government there stopped issuing new ration cards several years ago to avoid exceeding the numbers provided for by the central government. About 700,000 applications for ration cards are pending. “If the central government were using updated population figures instead of 2011 figures, all these applications could be accommodated within the central quota,” they said.

At the all-India level, applying the 67% ratio to a projected population of 1,372 million for 2020, PDS coverage today would be 922 million, instead of around 800 million, they concluded.

“The consequences of excluding millions of people from the PDS are taking a grim turn as the coronavirus crisis devastates livelihoods across the country,” they added.