Once a gateway to the future, cyber cafes start fading into oblivion
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.
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.