Millions of Indians live on the verge of hunger even in normal times. Now, with the coronavirus epidemic sweeping the world and India declaring a five week-long economic lockdown to contain it, hunger threatens an even larger population which has no income to buy food.

As part of its economic central government has announced 5 kg extra foodgrains and one kg of pulses free of cost for three months for every Indian enrolled in the public distribution system. But more than 100 million people are excluded from the public distribution system because the central government insists on using the 2011 census population figures to calculate state-wise coverage under the National Food Security Act, calculations by economists Jean Drèze, Reetika Khera and Meghana Mungikar show.

Passed in 2013, the National Food Security Act mandates that the Central government supply 5 kg of foodgrains at subsidised prices to 75% of the population in rural areas and 50% of the population in urban areas. This comes to 67% of the country’s population. The Centre supplies the foodgrains to the states, which distribute them.

According to the 2011 census, India’s population was 1.22 billion. This means 67% – or 814 million people – are eligible for subsidised foodgrains under the NFSA.

But over the last decade, the country’s population is estimated to have risen by 161.4 millions to touch 1.37 billion. Using the 67% benchmark, this translates into 922 million people.

This means 100 million-plus people who are entitled to food rations under Indian law are not getting them.

The main reason is that the Centre has ignored repeated demands for updating the statewise numbers to reflect population changes. Once the Centre updates the numbers, states can get more subsidised grains from the Centre. Without this, states are reluctant to issue new ration cards and add beneficiaries to their public distribution system.

If the Centre was waiting for the 2021 census to update the numbers, the census now stands delayed because of the epidemic.

The public health crisis, in fact, means an already overstretched government machinery does not have the capacity to update the numbers or expand the public distribution system lists, at least not in short term, the economists point out.

With millions facing grave and immediate hunger, other solutions are needed, they say.

“The Central government should release enough foodgrains to the states for them to give food rations to anyone who needs them, not just those on the PDS [public distribution system] lists,” said Reetika Khera, a professor at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad. She emphasised that the Centre should supply the grain free of cost and not the current rates of Rs 21-Rs 22 for wheat and rice that it is charging for grains supplied above the state’s entitlements under the food security law.

“States can choose how to use the grain,” said Khera, “to universalise the PDS, run community kitchens or any other way to ensure that those without ration cards are not worried about their next meal.”

In a recent article, Drèze had pointed out that the Centre has millions of tonnes of foodgrains lying in its godowns. “In economic terms, releasing excess stocks is costless, and even saves money. But in accounting terms, it is expensive,” he wrote, explaining how food-subsidy accounting works. He said this accounting needed to be ignored given the unprecedented crisis of hunger that India faces as it shuts down economic activity to fight a pandemic.