Airtel fiasco: CEO Gopal Vittal admits to Aadhaar lapse, says situation could have been handled better

Oil ministry claimed that Rs 167 crore of LPG subsidies had been deposited in the accounts of Airtel Payments Bank without the customers knowing that such accounts had been opened.

Days after the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) suspended the e-KYC licence of Airtel as well as Airtel Payments Bank for alleged misuse, the telco has admitted to the lapses in its governance of the customer authentication process and said that it failed to meet its own standards.

In a letter to employees dated December 25, Airtel CEO Gopal Vittal said the situation could have been handled better.

“As you know, we take great pride in being a strong customer centric brand that upholds the highest standards of governance. In this case we did not meet our high standards,” Vittal wrote.

Controversy broke out after oil companies and the Oil ministry claimed that Rs 167 crore of LPG subsidies had been deposited in the accounts of Airtel Payments Bank without the knowledge of customers, who were unaware that such accounts had been opened.

The UIDAI imposed a fine of Rs 2.5 crore on the telecom operator for opening payments bank accounts of its subscribers without their knowledge, violating the Aadhaar Act, 2016.

Airtel Payments Bank head Shashi Arora quit in the immediate fallout of the controversy.

“First, we could have acted faster. If customers were inconvenienced, we knew. And we should have done something about it immediately. Second, we could have been far more responsive to the concerns of key government departments. Third, we could have shown urgency relating to the spirit of compliance even if we adhered to the letter behind compliance,” Vittal said.

While the telco has deposited Rs 2.5 crore as penalty with the authority, it has so far credited Rs 138 crore into the original DBT (Direct Benefit Transfer) accounts of some 55.63 lakh beneficiaries.

The Airtel CEO said the earlier rules which automatically credited DBT to the last bank account linked with Aadhaar — in this case Airtel Payments Bank — have benefitted millions of unbanked Indians.

But he added that it was entirely likely that many customers who opened a bank account with Airtel Payments Bank may have received a credit of DBT without being aware of it.

“For those who were unaware, this has probably caused great inconvenience and confusion. We understand that many other banks have had similar instances,” Vittal said, adding that such “credit, lying unused in the accounts with no activity into the previous bank accounts of customers” have been reversed.

While Bharti Airtel has been conditionally allowed to resume Aadhaar-based e-KYC verification of subscribers till January 10, the payments bank has received no relief.