As opposed to a PCO booth at each major railway station decades back, today some continue to operate despite meagre financial returns. Braving the age of cellphones, the STD/PCO booth, on the “bada bridge (big bridge)” of Dadar railway station continues to stand after 20 years. The PCO booth inside the station continues to draw a number of long-distance commuters who may be without a mobile phone. It helps commuters make a quick phone call in case they lose their cellphones and allows “anonymity” or secrecy to the callers looking for it.
For Re 1 per minute for local calls and Rs 2 per minute for STD calls, the yellow-coloured booth attracts a 800-900 customers every day. “Before mobile phones were widely used, the booth used to run for as long as the trains did, from about 4.30 am till 12.30 am. Lines of people used to gather outside the booth then, early in the morning. Now we open a little late in the day as the number of customers have reduced,” says Suresh Dhane (53), a part-time worker in the PCO booth at Dadar station. Dhane has been at the booth for more than 20 years. Being a migrant from Satara, he did odd jobs till he was finally referred for the attendant’s job at the booth by a friend. He works night shifts and is popular with the regular customers. Dhane recalls the time when everyone carried a little address book around, with a record of phone numbers. Now when people use the PCO booth, mostly due to dead phone batteries, they are handicapped because they are unable to access the required phone number. “All kinds of people use the booth. Some who own Rs 10,000 worth phones but never seem to have even a minimum amount of phone balance. Tourists from northern states who do not get proper signal to make STD calls visit the booth. There are regulars who call their families or lovers and talk for over sixty minutes,” said Dhane.
The phone booth is, however, not much of a money-maker, which is why the proprietor also sells earphones and other cellphone accessories at the booth. Other than managing the regular business of the booth, Dhane jokes that it has become an enquiry booth for the lost and the confused. Every few minutes, people come up to the booth to ask for directions to the right platforms and trains to board, which Dhane expertly guides them through. Dhane also allows people to charge their phones for a maximum of half an hour for Rs 10. He only allows this favour to inter-state travellers, saying that locals would otherwise use it frivolously. What also becomes a concern for the attendants at the booth is the lack of any ID proof to make these calls. A person need not register their details in any log book or submit an identity proof to make a call. The only way to identify a caller is by CCTV cameras located strategically at the station. The anonymity sometimes becomes cause for concern. “Sometimes people call back on the booth phones in anger because of the frequent nuisance calls they get from unidentified callers. They even threaten me and vent their anger at me. I know it is a problem, so I ask them to lodge a complaint with the helpline,” added Dhane.
Regular visitors to the booth say PCOs can never become obsolete. “My phone battery always tends to run out after I reach Mumbai from Nagpur,” said Rukhabhai Jain, a textile merchant who commutes frequently to Mumbai for work. “I need to communicate with my colleagues in the office to let them know I have reached. I have been relying on the PCO since years and its importance would never die for me.”
Tanvi Shenoy is a student of NSoJ and is an intern with Indian Express, Mumbai