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20 years on: India’s cyber cafes disappearing as pocket internet takes over

Twenty years ago, access to the internet from anything compact and pocket-friendly was unheard of. Cyber Cafes were the gateways to the virtual abyss of the World Wide Web. In today’s smartphone era, they are becoming a forgotten space given their fading relevance.

india Updated: Jul 31, 2016 11:59 IST
Manoj Sharma

The Fire Fox Internet Cafe at Naveen Shahdara in New Delhi. Twenty years ago, cyber cafes were the gateways to the World Wide Web. In today’s smartphone era, they are becoming a forgotten space.(Sonu Mehta/HT Photo)

Aamir Khurso sits at the front desk of his cyber café, watching the rain. On the wall behind him is a black and white printout asking customers to present their ID cards. There aren’t too many customers, just a few youngsters peering into bulky, old CRT monitors inside small white cubicles. A musty smell pervades the place.

“Few people come here. I wonder if it’s time to shut down this place,” says the 37-year-old owner of Firefox Internet Cafe in east Delhi. “A decade ago, there used to be a waiting period to use the internet.”

Cyber cafes symbolised India’s nascent internet revolution and introduced a generation to the World Wide Web. The first one, named simply CyberCafe, opened at Mumbai’s Leela hotel in 1996, a year after VSNL brought the internet to India. Soon after, Delhi got its first, Cyber Club, at the ITC Maurya hotel. Both no longer exist.

The Cyber Club at ITC Maurya hotel, Delhi’s first internet cafe. (HT File Photo)

By 2005, India had 200,000 Net cafes. That number is now down to 72,000, according to the Cyber Café Association of India.

This year marks 20 years of the advent of the cyber café in India, and their numbers are fast dwindling — the Capital has 2,500 of them from 8,000 in 2008.

Going back to the summer of 2000 when he started out, Khurso says, “I was 22 and wanted to do something different. It was fashionable then to open cyber cafes. They were the start-ups of those days. We were the first to spread digital literacy, but now we are out of work.”

With growing internet access at home and work, cyber café owners like Khurso now offer online utility services — air and rail ticketing, money transfer, online applications, scanning and printouts — to earn a living.

“In the early days, 200 people visited my cafe every day and the wait for a slot could stretch to two hours. We began to lose business sharply around 2011, when the smartphone became popular,” says Naresh Kumar, 38, who runs the café True Education in Janakpuri.

According to a Tata Consultancy Services study, 5% internet users in India visited cyber cafes in 2013 against 46% in 2009. During this period, internet use at home rose from 58% to 78%.

Mobile Internet user base went up from 238 million in June 2014 to 306 million in December 2015, says a report of the Internet and Mobile Association of India-IMRB International.

Most cyber café owners started out in their early 20s and say it is tough making new plans in their late thirties.

“The income is also meagre. I charge Rs 11 an hour but there are still few takers,” says Khurso.

That’s a far cry from the days when Calculus in Connaught Place charged Rs 150 an hour while the hourly rate at cafes in five-star hotels was Rs 800. Cities like Bangalore had fancy cyber cafes with liveried waiters.

For many, the demise of the internet café means the end of landmarks of their youth.

“Our customers came for Yahoo chats, Hotmail and Orkut. For my generation, Yahoo was a tech giant. (Hotmail founder) Sabeer Bhatia, and not (Facebook’s) Mark Zuckerberg, was our hero,” says Khusro.

Aman Sharma, 40, of Paschim Vihar says it was “cool” visiting cyber cafes. “We not only learnt to use the internet but cyber cafes were a social space where we made friends. I met my girlfriend at one.”

So, is it the end of the cyber café in India?

Amrita Choudhury, president of the Cyber Café Association of India, believes they can stay relevant, giving the example of the Common Service Center — internet access points delivering government-to-consumer services under the Digital India programme.

“Internet penetration is still very low in India and there are many who cannot afford a computer or smartphone. Cyber cafes can bridge that digital divide, which is creating an economic divide.”