The last few weeks have seen disturbing news reports about the human and economic impact of the global coronavirus pandemic, including from India, which is now in a state of total lockdown following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address to the nation on the evening of March 24.

But, thankfully, none of these reports have had anything to do with the shortage of cash at ATMs around the country. Wiser with the learnings from demonetisation in 2016 the cash management industry now has a playbook in place to deal with such exigencies. Though there is no supply-side shock to the system at present, as was the case with demonetisation, cash management companies are implementing this playbook to ensure that citizens have adequate access to their own money via ATMs at a time of national crisis.

Not only is the availability of cash being ensured, but sanitisation measures are also being implemented across the process chain to ensure the health and safety of all stakeholders. The industry is also working on a war footing to dispel the notion that banknotes are carriers of the novel Coronavirus, which has afflicted and killed thousands around the world.

The Currency Cycle Association (CCA), in a press release dated March 24, reaffirmed that cash officers have been instructed to use sanitisers while handling cash and ATMs, including wiping the keypad of ATMs after filling them with cash.

Anush Raghavan, vice president, CMS Info Systems Pvt. Ltd, the largest cash management firm in the country, told Fortune India that his company was conducting the operation in staggered shifts by starting the process of procuring cash and putting them in ATMs early in the morning and finishing late at night, in order to ensure that too many employees didn’t congregate at the same time and many vehicles weren’t plying at the same time.

“Usually banks issue the cash in the morning and we fill the ATMs on the same day. But we have now started taking the cash a day in advance and securely vaulting it before filling the ATMs the next day. This ensures that we don’t end up overcrowding branches, which are already under pressure due to fewer staff members,” Raghavan explained.

Because of the time it took for ATMs to be replenished during the phase after demonetisation, cash management companies like CMS, which has a share of close to 50% of the cash management market, have started installing electronic locks at ATMs, which can be unlocked remotely from a command centre by sending an OTP or a passcode to the on-ground executive. This has helped cash management companies save time when it comes to replenishing cash, which is clearly being guzzled by customers during this current period of exigency. The few days running up to the Janta Curfew of March 22 saw ATMs operate at an average capacity of 120%, Raghavan said. On the Monday following the curfew (March 23), this came down to 75-80% and fell further to 40-50% till 8 pm on March 24, which is when the Prime Minister announced a full lockdown in the country. “Soon afterwards, the level of transactions went up close to 100%,” Raghavan said.

It is estimated that on any normal day, ATMs across the country carry as much as ₹25,000-30,000 crore of cash.

While bringing money from the government’s mint to the banks and then onwards to the ATM machines is one part of CMS’ business, the other part includes managing the cash of retail clients such as shops and large establishments. With economic activity coming to a virtual halt across the country, CMS is also re-deploying staff engaged in the retail cash management towards filling ATMs with money to reduce the time taken to make cash available to the public.

Raghavan also added that while cash management was classified as an essential service by the government and the movement of people and vehicles involved in such activities was permitted, it was taking time for the information to reach the states. “We are speaking to the Indian Banks’ Association to see if cash management executives can be given some kind of ID cards, which will help avoid hampering their movement.”

While adequate cash is available to the public, which is also being encouraged to use digital payment methods to avoid crowding near banks and ATMs, the notion that banknotes should be avoided as they are carriers of the Covid-19 virus is misplaced, say Raghavan and the CCA.

“There are… certain advisories that are doing the rounds in the banking industry stating that there is a risk of transmission of the Coronavirus through banknotes. CCA wishes to clarify that this news is an incorrect representation of what WHO intended to say about the handling of notes and that it doesn’t transmit Covid-19,” the CCA statement said. “This is reinforced by ESTA (the biggest cash management association worldwide) through a press release which, along with mentioning about WHO, gives further scientific information confirming that there is no risk of Covid-19 contamination on banknotes.”

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