With his profits plummeting each passing day, cybercafé owner Shailesh Surjani, 37, is a worried man. “My business is no longer viable. If I don’t start thinking about some other business now, matters will only get worse,” said Surjani, owner of Sri Online cybercafé at Dattapada Road in Borivli (E).
Prashant Mahant, 31, who runs another cybercafé — Prashant Internet Café — barely 300m away, too, has similar concerns. “This is the last time I am renewing my licence,” he said.
Surjani and Mahant represent a generation of entrepreneurs, who caught up with the internet boom in the past decade to start their cybercafés. As computers and internet connections were too expensive then, cybercafés soon sprang up in every corner of Mumbai. However, a decade later, the 3G smartphone boom is threatening the livelihood of cybercafé owners.
Surjani said, “Earlier, there used to be a constant flow of customers throughout the day till late at night. Many would queue up outside.”
After the cybercafé business was legitimised in Mumbai in 2006, the Mumbai police issued around 538 licences. Sources said hundreds continued to operate on the sly. As the norms got stringent, licence holders had little time to breathe because they had to verify the identity proofs produced by each customer. “We never complained, as it was needed for security,” said Mahant. “But 3G-enabled smartphones and data packages for as cheap as Rs 200 have led to a drastic drop in the number of customers,” said Surjani.
From 2012 to December 2014, the theatre branch of the Mumbai police has not received a single application for a new licence, said PN Girmal, senior inspector of the branch. Moreover, Guru Cyber at Chembur, the first licensed cybercafé in the city, shut shop in 2011.
“By December 2014, 69 cybercafés shut shop, while 64 owners have not renewed their licences,” Girmal said.
According to the police, areas such as Goregaon, Oshiwara and Jogeshwari, which accounted for the maximum number of cybercafés in the city, have reported the maximum number of closures in the past few years. These days, the few customers Surjani gets are those who want to check the status of their Aadhaar/PAN card application and take prints.
Mahant said the business is brisk during college admission and board result seasons. “It is tough to pay such high rentals and electricity bills, apart from the maintenance cost.”
The police had a surprise on the first day of 2015, when they received a licence application from an Antop Hill resident, after a gap of two years. “It seems not everyone has lost hope,” Girmal said.