Will return Rs 190-crore subsidy to original a/cs, Airtel informs NPCI

UIDAI, based on preliminary findings, temporarily suspended Airtel’s eKYC licence key disallowing the company from conducting Aadhaar-based authentication in the interim.


Bharti Airtel, under fire over the alleged misuse of Aadhaar-based eKYC mechanism to open accounts in Airtel Payments Bank, on Monday wrote to the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI), saying it will return around Rs 190 crore in LPG subsidy that was deposited in the payments bank accounts of an estimated 31 lakh subscribers.

Earlier on Monday, state-owned oil marketing companies wrote to Airtel asking the company to either deposit the money into the original accounts of the direct benefit transfer (DBT) beneficiaries, or return it back to the oil firms.

“As per government rules, DBT subsidy goes to latest Aadhaar linked bank account. Customers can withdraw this at any of our designated outlets. No charges for such withdrawals are levied. Having said that, given that some customers have experienced inconvenience of not being aware of which Bank account the DBT has gone to, we are fully committed to resolving this immediately. We are in the process of taking appropriate steps in respect of the same,” an Airtel Payments Bank spokesperson said in response to a query sent by The Indian Express.

The issue was first came to light in September when certain beneficiaries of LPG subsidy stopped receiving the money in their bank accounts, and instead started receiving it in their Airtel Payments Bank accounts. Following this, the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) began investigating the issue and alleged that Airtel, along side re-verifying its existing subscribers through Aadhaar-based eKYC, was also opening accounts in the payments bank without the “informed consent” of the customers. Late last week, UIDAI temporarily suspended the eKYC licence key given to Airtel and Airtel Payments Bank, effectively disallowing the telecom operator from conducting Aadhaar-based authentication in the interim, pending an audit of its systems by a private firm to ascertain if they conformed with the Aadhaar Act.

The Department of Telecommunications has mandated all telecom operators to re-verify all existing subscribers using Aadhaar-based eKYC by February 6, 2018. According to a senior government official, the UIDAI has suspended the e-KYC licence key, used for reaching out to the authority’s servers to authenticate the identity of any user, temporarily. The key was given to Bharti Airtel Ltd and Airtel Payments Bank Ltd under the Authentication User Agency Agreement signed between the companies and UIDAI in February 2015 and September 2016, respectively. The official said that after the UIDAI received reports of Airtel allegedly opening payments bank accounts without user consent, it ordered an investigation over the incident. However, after repeated responses by Airtel to UIDAI’s notices, which the authority found to be “unsatisfactory”, it suspended Airtel’s access to the keys.

With an aim of controlling leakage of subsidies, the government pays subsidy equivalent to buying 12 LPG cylinders of 14.2-kg each in a year, directly into the bank accounts of beneficiaries. Unlike in the past, LPG now is only available at market price. Beneficiaries get subsidy for one cylinder in advance and are replenished the moment they use it up to buying LPG refill.

“In many cases across the three oil marketing companies (IOCL, BPCL and HPCL), the Aadhaar linking of LPG consumers has got changed in the NPCI mapper to Airtel Bank and hence the LPG subsidy is getting sent to the new bank account in Airtel Bank,” a statement released by Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Ltd said. “In order to link LPG subsidy to earlier bank accounts, HPCL has written to Airtel Bank and requested that the subsidy amounts of these consumers be immediately either transferred back to the customer’s earlier bank account or to the respective OMCs,” it added.

According to a government official, if found in contravention of provisions of the Aadhaar Act, which mandate taking explicit consent of the individual, Airtel could be punished with the penalty of Rs 1 lakh per day and termination of the authentication user agreements. The final decision will be taken by UIDAI once the aforementioned audit is concluded.