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At Manapadu, a village near the town of Uthangarai, over 655 kilometers from Chennai in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, a group of women gathered around Ranjani, some with cash in hand and others with empty and outstretched palms. Ranjani is a local entrepreneur who bridges the last mile between the bank branch and this village with its population of 2,800. She delivers the cash when the villagers need it and collects deposits from those who have some money to spare. The ‘bank’ she carries with her is a simple laptop or point of sale (PoS) device, with which she carries out the authentication against the villagers’ Aadhar/debit card before the cash exchanges hands.

This scene is unfolding in many villages in the current Coronavirus-hit times. The COVID-19 outbreak has brought normal life to a halt across the world, and India is no exception. To control the spread of the virus in a densely populated country like India, social distancing is the best option, and the entire country has consequently been under a full three-week lockdown from March 22. Although essential services such as food, medicines and the media have been allowed to operate, access to financial services is through digital means. And while the urban population has the option of accessing financial services digitally, this is a challenge for the digitally excluded in semi-urban and rural areas.

Technology to Enable Access to All

This last mile has been the focus of the TCS Digital Financial Inclusion program, which powers banking transactions across the country. Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) provides technology services to most Indian banks, including the applications for all their channels. This could be anything from PoS terminals and technology needed for citizen service centers, to mobile applications that connect to authentication tools such as Aadhar (a national identity and authentication system), debit cards or the Unified Payments Interface (UPI).

This includes around 100,000 touchpoints, of which close to 90% are in rural or semi-urban areas. These services need to be both cost-effective and secure. In many cases, TCS provides the applications and also works with the banks to ensure the health and safety of its customers. This includes the creation of a ‘sticker’ to establish an identity indicating the provision of essential services, safety measures such as providing sanitizers and soaps for customers before the use of biometric/debit card authentication and queue management to ensure social distancing.

In some areas, like in the Manapadu example above, TCS even managed the last mile to the village, and has tied up with a partner network to run Customer Service Points (these are banking service centers run in relatively unbanked areas). These last-mile channels provide not just regular banking services and purchases, but are also critical in ensuring that any government aid reaches the people it is intended for.

Batting for Inclusion

On March 26, 2020, India’s finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced a relief package for those affected by the COVID-19 crisis. The TCS Digital Financial Inclusion program will be the major channel for citizens to withdraw the benefits credited through the Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) scheme by the government. This channel will also enable the transfer of government subsidies such as the minimum wages scheme MNREGA, Women Jan Dhan Accounts, old-age pensions and other subsidies announced for relief from time to time. It will also enable food security through the digital public distribution system, ePDS, and provide working capital loans to women’s self-help groups. As the world battles the Coronavirus, banks might have to remain shut, but banking will continue to be open for business.