The era of neighbourhood cyber cafe is over

As the business of cyber cafes declines, owners are either offering a range of add-on services or exploring new avenues of income generation. Youngsters say they miss the good old days of hanging out with their peers in these spaces

The era of neighbourhood cyber cafe is over

Internet cafes, popularly known as cyber cafes, sprang up in the late 1990s, pretty much like coffee shops. (All photos: Tanisha Seaxena)

The wooden door of the cyber café is plastered with flyers, reading like brief tutorials on Sahil’s preoccupations. Some pictures of Lord Ganesha stuck on with glue are scruffy at the edges. A poster from a recruitment platform announces job vacancies: one has to simply dial a toll-free number or scan the QR code given on it.

Other brochures have information about the cafe owner. One half-torn paper reads, “Net surfing closed.”

Suddenly, a breach in the silence. The croaky cry of a vegetable vendor pierces the air, a reminder that in India, new technology rubs shoulders with old ways of living.

Sahil Kumar, 43, runs this cyber cafe in the basement of a house in DDA flats, Madangir, south Delhi. There aren’t many customers, just two teenage boys asking for photocopies of some papers they are carrying in a file cover.

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Going back to 2001 when Kumar started out, he shares, “It was really fashionable back in those days to open a cyber cafe. From checking emails, making files and playing video games — cyber cafes were those favourite dens for people irrespective of age group. Par ab to bas jaise taise guzara ho raha hai (But now we are just surviving).”

The reason is obvious: technological advancement. Everyone owns a smartphone these days, most people have computers at home. “As a result, Internet surfing has almost died,” he rues. “And trust me, running a cafe is just like living hand-to-mouth.”

Global downslide

Internet cafes, popularly known as cyber cafes, sprang up in the late 1990s, pretty much like coffee shops. In those days, it was the rare family that had a computer at home or an internet connection.

Visiting a cafe was not just about doing work or playing video games, there was a community networking process. People used to interact, exchange information and share ideas. According to the statistics provided by the Cyber Café Association of India, India had 72,000 cybercafés in 2016.

The function of cyber cafes across the globe varies, as they reflect the socio-cultural dynamics of a society and its popular culture. Once, cyber cafes were a potent source of connection at times of political unrest.

Kumar is a computer science graduate who, as soon as his studies were over, decided to open a cyber cafe. His parents have always been supportive of this choice. However, deep down, Kumar believes that he should have had a Plan B.

“I am helpless now because if I apply for a job, they want more skills than simply a knowledge of operating systems. I earn around Rs 300-400 a day. Earlier, children would skip tuition classes to come here; they would spend their little pocket money on playing video games. Executives would come to prepare PowerPoint presentations. Now, the only source of income for me is photocopying and taking printouts,” adds Kumar.

Diversification

Today if you google cyber cafes in the capital, a number of options will flash on the screen. However, when you visit these areas, most seem to have been shut down or some other business is running from the same venue. But some have managed to remain afloat in the crisis.

How? By upgrading and expanding their services. Ramesh Chandra, who is in his sixties, can be found working on the computer in his cyber cafe in Khanpur Extension. As a customer enters the cafe and asks for a colour printout of a document, Chandra just gives him a nod and the customer understands that he needs to wait. Chandra is busy typing a file for another customer sitting beside him.

“Some people do come for internet surfing. They either want to make a presentation or a file. While I have not mentioned anywhere in the cafe that net surfing is available here, when somebody asks, I simply let them do it. These are mostly elderly people, who have not kept up with the changing times. Hence, they turn to cyber cafes. By the grace of God, I am earning well enough to live a respectable life,” shared Chandra while typing the content for the customer.

Chandra charges a low fee of Rs 33 per hour for surfing. There are merely three computers in the cafe as the others had to be sold out due to financial loss in the Covid years. Chandra also teaches typing to beginners and elderly people who are willing to learn. These are adjuncts to his other work, that is, photocopying.

Like Chandra, several other cyber cafe owners have diversified their businesses. Shyam, a middle-aged man, runs a cyber cafe in Chittaranjan Park near Deshbandhu College. Predictably, because of the location, Shyam is always busy, his café filled up with students, though the basement shop smells damp and has seepage.

On a sunny afternoon, a bunch of college students are waiting for photocopies, while others are requesting printouts of their exam hall tickets. Shyam at times feels there’s not even a minute to catch a breath.

In the middle of his busy schedule, he says, “It’s about timing. I knew that simply running a cyber cafe won’t be a good option. Progress is happening all the time, no? So I decided to expand my services. I know students need loads of work to be done quickly. That’s exactly where my shop offers a vital service. I’m always busy and grateful for god’s grace!”

Drumming up business

Dhruv Goyal, 57, has diversified the services of his cyber café even more creatively. He books train tickets, runs a courier service and facilitates money transfers.

A resident of Alaknanda, he says, “It is sad and disheartening to see cyber cafes dying but one must evolve. My family, especially the younger generation, always tell me not to be dependent on just one source. Hence, I try to do multiple things in a day.”

Goyal has more surprises up his sleeve. He also has a side gig as an electrician on call who visits apartments after 3 pm to fix issues. In the morning, he works as a newspaper vendor.

Ankush Sharma, a third-year student of Delhi University, revisits those good old days when he along with his friends would go to the nearby cyber cafe in Tughlaqabad. “We used to spend hours there. But now cyber cafes are a rarity. There was one at the corner of my street but the owner has started a stationery shop and also takes print orders. He is always busy with numerous students coming in to buy stuff.”

There’s another in one of the bylanes of his locality. There too the locals can get good quality prints and xerox copies. “We do miss cyber cafes but times have changed and everyone has a smartphone. Jio internet has furthermore brought in so much comfort in people’s lives,” opines Sharma.

High-speed access

These cyber cafes were not just spots for internet surfing and work but also hubs for sharing pirated music. For video game addicts, they were a daily habit. “With time, everything changed,” says Vineet Nanda, a city-based game developer who once owned a cyber cafe in Sangam Vihar along with a little gaming cafe.

“These days, parents provide everything for their kids at home,” says Nanda. “From smartphones to Android television, it’s all available to them. Moreover, these internet cafes always provided pretty slow and unreliable services. Who would want to come to a cyber cafe when people are getting much higher speed internet at home? Now we will get 5G.”

Aarush Kumar, another cyber cafe owner, shares an interesting insight about how social media has cut into physical interaction. He told us, “Earlier these cyber cafes were the only place to interact and make new friends. People would come and sit for hours. But have you noticed these days, nearly every place is offering internet. From hospitals, banks to coffee shops and chic restaurants — nearly everywhere we have internet access. People don’t need to go to a specific place to access internet. In fact, it has become a value-add at many places.”

Alternative sources

“Cyber cafes are a thing of the past,” quips Lokesh Yadav, 66, a businessman. He supplies raw materials to a printing press in Daryaganj. From ink, machinery to paper — Yadav takes care of everything that the press requires.

The cyber cafe he once owned has been rented out to a college student who wants a part-time occupation. “After finishing classes in the day, the boy comes to the shop and earns whatever god wishes,” says Yadav. He points to the strides made in the telecom sector and says one has to come to terms with the hard-hitting reality.

From his comfortable position, he says, “It is quite silly to stick to this work as the future is bleak. One day people will be self-sufficient to do all the work at home. Gradually, people are also buying printing materials and machinery at home. In fact, my own children have a printer at home. So, it’s natural that there will be no demand for cyber cafes.”

Similarly, Prakash Nagar of Rohini has sold out his cyber cafe. Now, he works as a property dealer and the cafe is no longer his primary source of income for him. He concludes, “Internet surfing was common 10 years ago. Now, to find a cyber cafe is like trying to find a needle in a heap. I started dealing in real estate four years ago and am making enough money. I think each of us should understand that with time a lot of things change. We have to keep up with the times, right?”

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Tanisha Saxena
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