Even though India was essentially under a lockdown for an entire week in March to combat COVID-19, it seems to have done little to hamper biometric transactions to withdraw cash: In March 2020, 181.81 million biometric transactions were done on Aadhaar enabled Payments Services, data released by the National Payments Corporation of India show. For comparison, in January and February, 225.47 million and 216.72 million biometric transactions were done on AePS, meaning that numbers have not dropped as drastically as they should have, given that the entire nation was practically under lockdown since March 25, certain states were under lockdown even before that.

AePS works using a Point of Sale (POS) machine, and instead of using a debit/credit card, uses a person’s Aadhaar number, which is linked to their banked account. The transaction will then have to be authenticated using the person’s biometric data. In most cases, people authenticate transactions using a fingerprint reader, given that iris scanners are not readily available with the Bank Correspondents or agents, Srikanth L, of Cashless Consumer, a consumer collective focussed on digital payments, told MediaNama. The fingerprint reader, in this case, can potentially spread the coronavirus given that it is a very common touchpoint.

Srikanth told us that not suspending biometric transactions for withdrawing cash is majorly going to affect the poor. “While many government offices, and in some states, even PDS shops have suspended biometric authentication to prevent spread of COVID-19, when it comes to withdrawing cash, there is no option for the poor but to use biometric payment system AePS. This is because the banks have not issued debit cards to poor customers and force them to use biometrics”.

This is important because the Delhi government, last month, had advised its offices to suspend biometric attendance until further orders to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The centre has issued a similar advisory, which will be in place till October. Kerala decided to do away with biometric authentication for offering the public distribution system. All this, so that people avoid touching common touch points, and reduce the likelihood of them contracting the virus.

Calls have been made to cancel biometric authentication: On March 30, village level Bank Correspondents had raised concerns upon being instructed to use biometric machines to handle Jan Dhan and social security accounts, Tribune India had reported. The same day, IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad had tweeted images of a person from the postal service in Nagpur, who was visiting people’s homes so that they could withdraw cash from their accounts using AePS. The person can be seen with a fingerprint reader in images shared by Prasad.

All CSC’s seek exemption from the lockdown: E-governance services provider Common Service Centre Special Purpose Vehicle (CSC SPV) has sought exemption from the 21-day lockdown to provide banking services electronically, so that people can withdraw cash at their nearest common service centre without having to go to a bank, news agency PTI reported.