Coronavirus Outbreak: Government Tells States To Ensure Bank, ATM Firm Employees Can Work Freely

The finance ministry asks states to ensure bank and ATM firm staff are allowed to work without any hindrance despite the lockdown.

A customers uses an ATM machine to withdraw cash inside a branch of the State Bank of India (Photographer: Sebastian Di Souza/Bloomberg)
A customers uses an ATM machine to withdraw cash inside a branch of the State Bank of India (Photographer: Sebastian Di Souza/Bloomberg)

The Department of Financial Services has asked states to ensure that bank, cash management and automated-teller-machine operator employees are allowed to work without any hindrance despite the lockdown imposed to check the spread of novel coronavirus.

As of Tuesday evening, around 519 cases of the Covid-19 were confirmed in the country, according to the Health Ministry.

In a March 24 letter to the chief secretaries of all states and union territories, the finance ministry asked that the state administrations and police to permit employees of these industries to travel during the lockdown to ensure these critical services continue running. BloombergQuint has reviewed a copy of the letter.

“Consequent to the government’s strong measures on social distancing and lock down to check further spread of the virus in India, it is expected that people’s need for and reliance on electronic/digital modes of payment, and ATMs for cash withdrawals, will be greater in the days to come,” it said.

The finance ministry said the Reserve Bank of India and bank staff as well as employees of cash logistics, ATM maintenance companies and personnel of the National Payments Corporation of India be permitted to function without hurdles.

Bank staff, ATM and cash management company employees are part of the government’s list of essential services that will continue to function, despite the lock-down.

On Tuesday, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced that debit card holders can withdraw cash from any bank ATM free of charge for the next three months. Banks usually allow up five free transactions every month at their own machines and three free at ATMs of other banks.

ATM and cash management company executives who spoke to BloombergQuint had said their employees were stopped or faced problems while on the field as the police could not identify their credentials.

Companies are working with the RBI, Indian Banks’ Association and the Finance Ministry as well as with state governments to provide certificates or identity cards for their on-the-ground staff, they said.

“Right now all of our back-office staff is working from home and we were able to transition fairly quickly within four days,” said Rustom Irani, managing director at Hitachi Payment Services. “But the challenge is coordinating field operations which includes direct employees and our partners to manage the ATMs.”

Not all ATM maintenance staff can leave their homes, either due to personal reasons or due to the lockdown and curfews in specific neighborhoods, for instance.

“Through the use of online and mobile applications, ATM related calls are intelligently allocated and mapped to our field staff basis the requirement in an area and their availability considering the current lock-down. Teams are coordinating with the field staff across the country on a real-time basis to ensure that ATM services are available across the network,” he said.

Irani added that banks have told ATM operators to stock more cash in the ATMs so the number of cash loading trips that would be needed reduces.

“While an ATM would be replenished with cash every 2-3 days, now the replenishment is done every 4 to 5 days whereas in some areas it could be longer depending on how much cash we can stock and the transaction volumes,” he said.

Anush Raghavan, senior vice-president, cash business unit, CMS Info Systems Ltd, said they have set up a centralised war room for their back-office employees to monitor the situation and coordinate all ATM operations as well as cash pickup and drop for retailers.

“We have changed our pickup and ATM routes and also have introduced staggered shifts. The issue is that many of our staff can’t come to the local office or meeting the cash van, so we are engaging with the police across states to ensure that local officers and constables allow our staff to do their work and transit with ease,” he said.

Raghavan said since retail stores across major cities in the country are shut, their cash pickup and drop operations are down and they are operating at 40 percent capacity.

“Since a part of the business is shut, we are redeploying our staff that has freed up on that side to the ATM side of the business. We are able to dynamically manage the situation, so there are no supply side challenges but it will be important to see how the demand side behaves in the coming days,” he said.