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Telephone directories die a silent death
Wednesday August 21, 2013 0:11 AM, Aparajita Gupta, IANS

Technology is claiming yet another relic.

Remember those big fat books that made us proudly proclaim in the 1970s and 1980s that we owned a telephone? Alas, with the advent of the internet and smartphones that can store hundreds of numbers, the telephone directory got lost in the clutter of most households and offices to the extent that the majority of the current generation is unaware that such a publication once existed.

Old-timers will remember that the telephone directory often doubled up as a pillow whenever there was an unexpected guest at home or that it may have been used to kill cockroaches. Others will recollect how frantically they had searched for the address of their heart-throb's house through the name of the girl's father in the directory.

Life has come a long way in the last two decades and with handheld devices and internet, the thick volumes have gone into oblivion - indeed, become redundant. The telephone directory has died a natural death, silently.

Now, queries for numbers get channelised through services like Justdial, which addressed 364 million search requests across various platforms in 2012-13. The voice component comprised 40 percent, whereas the other 60 percent came in via the internet and mobile internet sources.

"Today, the Justdial is shifting gear towards more sophisticated technology, as the voice component is becoming less dominant by the day, with just 34 percent of search queries coming via the medium, whereas Internet and mobile internet now accounts for 66 percent of the overall traffic," Justdial chief financial officer Ramkumar Krishnamachari told IANS.

Thus, those long meandering queues in front of telephone exchanges when the voluminous telephone directories were issued have vanished.

Many people feel that search engines like Google have killed the telephone directory, once a bible for many.

The last time Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd-Delhi published a directory was in 2000 in two volumes.

"A policy decision was taken in the late 1990s to stop printing directories as they had become too voluminous and were becoming too costly to print, considering they had to be distributed free to all "subscribers," an official of the Department of Telecom told IANS.

"The printing stopped at various times in various cities due to commitments to "advertisers," the official added.

A retired banker in his late 1970s, R.R. Pandya of suburban Vile Parle has carefully preserved the final three bulky volumes published by MTNL-Mumbai.

Though the directory - running into over 4,000 pages - is dated 1999, it reached subscribers only by mid-2000.

"At times, I still go through this MTNL directory, but it's practically useless as more than 75 percent of the numbers have changed, many people have surrendered their MNTL lines, and the new numbers have not been listed," Pandya told IANS.

According to a top MTNL Mumbai official, the first Bombay (as Mumbai was then called) Telephones Directory was published way back in 1933, during the British era. Since then, the directories were published annually and virtually without a break till the last one in 1999, the official said.

The final volume listed 2.15 million subscribers and cost MTNL a whopping Rs.37 crore to print.

"The last time Chennai Telephones brought out a directory was in 2007. On the other hand the Chennai Telephones website is updated and people find it easy. Chennai Telephones has also stopped supplying the directory on CDs," G. Vijaya, spokesperson, Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL), Chennai Telephones, told IANS.

"Our usage of the telephone directory has come down a lot. However, we do use it to locate the numbers and address of government offices or officials," Jayalakshmi Srinivasan, a housewife, said.

In Bangalore, BSNL has stopped printing a telephone directory from this year following a circular from its head office in New Delhi, as many of its subscribers have stopped using them.

"The last directory we have printed in three volumes was in 2012 with landline numbers up to September 2012. Prior to 2012, we released directory in two or three volumes in alternate years," Bangalore Telecom district assistant general manager K. Ranganayaklu told IANS.

As the number of subscribers declined to 690,000 from 10 million over time due to increasing use of mobiles, the service provider has reduced print order to 200,000 from 500,000 to avoid stock piling.

"Of the 200,000 copies we printed last year, only 100,000 subscribers had exchanged it for the previous directory issued in 2011 with numbers up to December 2010. We are clearing the stock by giving it to new subscribers taking our service, a majority of them for broadband connection," Ranganayaklu said.

"As most of the tech-savvy subscribers use landline to access internet, they log into our website and browse for numbers or call our toll free number for other details," BSNL spokesman B.S. Ravindra said.

The public directory was discontinued five years ago in Kolkata. "The call centre service is really popular among senior citizens. Since they are used to the directory in text format, many find it difficult to surf through the web. For them calling up is the option," said a spokesperson of Calcutta Telephones.

For Namita Ghosh, a 72-year-old widow, writing down important numbers in a diary is a convenient way. "The helpline is engaged many times. I have jotted down important contacts like hospitals, doctors, relatives, etc. I still have the old directory," said Ghosh.

The last telephone directory by BSNL in Jaipur came out in 2008-09. "Oh I don't carry a mobile; I only have a landline and directory used to help me in finding numbers I desired. Now I have either to call JustDial or Getit to get the number and, mind you, for calling these numbers I have to pay call charges; it does not come free. What a pity!" lamented Rameshwar Singh, 80, who lives in Jaipur's walled city area.

(Aparajita Gupta can be contacted with With inputs from Quaid Najmi, V Jagannathan, Fakir Balaji, Sahana Ghosh and Anil Sharma)

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