Aadhaar comes to the rescue during Tamil Nadu floods

New Delhi: When heavy rains marooned large parts of Tamil Nadu, banking correspondents (BC) armed with Aadhaar-enabled micro-ATMs fanned out to help people retrieve cash from their bank accounts.

The flood swept away many belongings including the bank pass book, debit card and other identification documents of S. Sangeetha, 28, who lives in Anumandai village in Viluppuram district. “There was waist-high water; at least 10 houses in our village collapsed,” she said.

Bhuvneshwari, who lives in the same village and goes by only her first name, managed to save her debit card, but it got wet and could not be used again.

Neither of the two women could access their money, even though payments of work they had done under the government’s rural job guarantee scheme were lying in their accounts.

Banks were shut and automated teller machines (ATMs) stopped working in the flood-affected areas of Tamil Nadu, including metropolitan Chennai. Floodwater and power cuts downed ATMs and there was no way to load cash in the ones that were working.

The two women, like others in their village, used to depend on BCs for cash, since the nearest ATM is a few kilometers away. Both had run out of cash, and that is when a local BC attached with Indian Bank turned up. The BC’s micro-ATM uses fingerprints to authenticate users and it can be used to withdraw cash for accounts held at any bank.

Both women’s bank accounts were seeded, or linked, with Aadhaar, a unique number issued by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI). Fortunately, the BC had entered every customer’s Aadhaar number in a diary. “They usually do it so that the number is readily available with them as these are frequent customers,” said Swaminathan Periaswamy, chief executive officer, Commonwealth Inclusive Growth Services Ltd, the BC organization attached with Indian Bank. Tata Consultancy Services Ltd takes care of the technology part of the transaction, and the field activity is done by Commonwealth.

Both women could withdraw cash with Aadhaar’s fingerprint authentication.

“In such micro-ATMs, if a person can key in Aadhaar number and authenticate biometrics, it goes to the server of UIDAI which if authenticates the details of the person, it connects to the bank account of the person through Aadhaar Payments Bridge of the National Payment Corp. of India, and the transaction goes through,” said Dheeraj K. Janbandhu, assistant general manager, financial inclusion division, Indian Bank.

During 1-7 December, the worst-hit period of the flood, Indian Bank saw at least 12,000 withdrawals totalling Rs.4.16 crore through micro-ATMs across the flood-hit areas including Chennai, Cuddalore, Pondicherry, Vellore, Kancheepuram and Tiruvannamalai.

“The system has a cap of Rs.5,000 withdrawal per count per day as this ensures more people are serviced, since the BC has to carry physical cash,” said Janbandhu. Around 600 BCs were pressed into service in these areas.

Aparna, a BC, who uses only one name, stationed herself at the Koyambedu inter-state bus terminus.

“The bus stop was also flooded; so, the ATMs were down. There were a lot of people who wanted to leave Chennai but did not have cash to buy tickets,” she said. Aparna and five BCs who are part of a self-help group helped travelers withdraw money using debit cards or Aadhaar-based authentication.

Aadhaar, a UIDAI project to enrol all Indian citizens, runs on the basis of an executive order issued in 2009, and is not backed by law. On 11 August, the Supreme Court asked the government to widely publicise that Aadhaar is not mandatory for any welfare scheme after complaints that the government and its agencies were forcing individuals to enrol even though registration is supposed to be voluntary.

Following complaints that its biometrics-based identification poses a threat to individual privacy, the Supreme Court referred Aadhaar to a Constitutional bench. The government’s top law officer has told the Supreme Court that Indian citizens do not have a fundamental right to privacy.

In the meantime, the court has limited the use of Aadhaar to the public distribution system, distribution of cooking gas and kerosene, the rural jobs guarantee scheme, the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana, central and state government pensions and the Employees’ Provident Fund Scheme through two orders. The fate of several other government schemes such as digital certificates and a digilocker—which are built around on Aadhaar—too depend on the verdict.