Remember the days when you and a bunch of your friends would rush to the nearest cyber café after school or college to check your mail, play a few games and explore the wonders of the World Wide Web?
Two decades ago, when the Internet opened up so many different worlds to us and had us marvelling at the extent of technology, several enterprising Mumbaiites cashed in. Cyber cafés sprung up on every street corner and business was roaring. But with smartphones and cheap data taking over our lives, café owners report fewer customers, and the police report getting fewer applications for licenses.
A few weeks ago, Sachinand Upadhaya,40, shut down his centre at Sher-e-Punjab in Andheri (East) after struggling for six years to keep the business afloat. Before Upadhaya, seven others withdrew their licenses, 24 others did not renew their papers. These cyber cafés will soon join the 200 others that have already disappeared from the city’s landscape.
Cyber café owners like Gopal Dada Rayate, 60, from Charkop feels the business is no longer sustainable. Rayate represents that generation of entrepreneurs who caught up with the Internet revolution in the late 1990s. “When Vajpayeeji (the prime minister at the time) announced no fees or service tax to open up cyber cafés, I sensed tremendous business opportunity,” says Rayate who set up the Vishal Cyber Café in the Charkop market in 1999. He converted his PCO into a cyber café, bought a set of monitors and plugged in the ISDN (Integrated Service Digital Network) cables that were used to make ISD/STD calls. Rayate saw gains, gains and more gains. “I earned between Rs7,000 and Rs8,000 a day. There would be long queues outside the shop.”
The success of first generation cyber café entrepreneurs like Rayate inspired many others and cyber cafes sprang up in every corner of the city. “Nineteen more cafés came up in the vicinity of my shop,” Rayate recollects. “As computers and internet connections were out of reach for many, cyber cafés were the only access to the web for the common man.”
By 2007, when the Mumbai police started regulating cyber cafes by issuing licenses following a series of terror incidents, there were already 380 cafés in business.
Today at Charkop market, only 5 of the 19 survive. Besides the fact that smart phones have become more accessible, café owners say police regulation also harmed the cafés’ popularity.
“CCTVs became mandatory. We were asked to maintain PDF files of customers’ names and keep snap shots of their identity proofs. As it was mostly teens and youth who visited cafés to play games, and lower-middle class people who could not afford PCs, these legalities scared them. People don’t like to be watched,” Upadhaya said.
As the business started falling, keeping with rising costs, such as electricity bills and maintenance of the computers forced many to shut shop — or expand to selling stationary to cushion the blow.
“My shop has survived because I own it and don’t have to pay rent. I still spend more than Rs15,000 on electricity, internet connection and maintenance but the earnings from computer graphics and web design work that my son and daughter do here help me sustain,” Rayate said.
Senior inspector Parashuram Girmal of the Theatre branch of Mumbai police said he saw the end for cyber cafés when the Guru Cyber Cafe at Chembur — the first licensed cyber café in Mumbai — downed its shutters in 2011.
“Five or six years ago, we would receive applications almost every day. Today, we don’t get even one application in 3-4 months,” he says.
Girmal said this year just eight licenses were issued, as compared to 21 last year and 24 in 2014.
But, there are some young entrepreneurs, like Abhishek Rane, 30, who are determined to turn the business around. Abhishek set up his café at Saat Rasta in September this year. And while the returns in the first month have been disappointing, he is unrelenting. “If I manage things properly, I can run this business for the next 10 years, no matter how much technology advances,” says Abhishek, who has a diploma in IT.
To make up for losses, Abhishek provides home service to people unfamiliar with the Internet. “From filling forms to calling a physician, everything is online,” he says, adding that he charges Rs200 for home service in Mumbai and Thane.
Business is brisk during college admissions and board results, he said. “Apart from that people checking status of Aadhaar/PAN card applications, college/school students wanting printouts constitute most of our customers.”
Abhishek also suggested some immediate measures to save the business. “Stationary stores with internet connection are eating into our business. They should be asked to follow the rules like us. Licenses should be given to only those having an IT background, as they can find ways to run it well, ensuring cyber safety.”