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December 17, 2017
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The area outside Lower Parel station is a hub of activity in the mornings, thanks to dabbawallas (Photograph by Rashida Arsiwala).

I vividly remember the days when I would wait in anticipation for the school lunch bell to ring so I could eat my hot, delicious, homemade meal. For this, I thank dabbawallas. Unfailingly punctual, they delivered my packed meal, or dabba, right before lunchtime every day. Years later, dabbawallas can still be spotted as brief, lunchtime apparitions.

Dabbawallas are unique to Mumbai largely due to one factor: the transport system. Mumbai is often said to have the most efficient transport system in India, and it forms the backbone of the dabba delivery system. Every morning, dabbawallas collect dabbas in tiffin boxes from various locations - mostly homes, but also catering services - and, using local train facilities, deliver them across the city. When asked exactly what areas they cover, Sanjay, a young dabbawalla working the Lower Parel area, says proudly and simply, "We deliver dabbas across the entire city."

Dabbawallas make their deliveries
on foot, cycle or handcarts.

The reason for their punctuality is simple - systematic operation. There are approximately 6,000 dabbawallas in Mumbai, but there is rarely any confusion. Every morning after collection, the lunch boxes are transported to the railway station closest to their destination. From there, dabbawallas deliver the dabbas to their final destination on foot, bicycle, or handcarts. From the time the dabba leaves home until it reaches its destination, it has changed hands four to five times.

Every morning, the main points of delivery for each area are teeming with dabbawallas sorting through dabbas. What seems like a mind-boggling task to mere mortals - spotting the correct dabbas - these men do easily. "We have a system whereby the dabbas are either numbered and/or colour-coded. That's how each of us knows which dabba is supposed to be delivered where," says Mr. Dangle, a dabbawalla at Lower Parel.

It's very easy to spot a dabbawalla. He's the man who passes by you on the road riding a bicycle with several dabbas tied to the back. Even on foot they are easy to spot, thanks to their trademark Gandhi topi, a white cap, pointed in the front and back with a wide middle, made popular by Mahatma Gandhi. "Come rain or shine, the Gandhi topi provides us with protection," says Mr. Dangle.

All dabbawallas are part of a union formally titled the Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Association. There is only one dabbawalla service in the entire city and its union office is in the Dadar area of Mumbai.

What does this dedicated workforce charge? "We charge between 350-500 rupees (CAD$7-10) per dabba per month," says Mr. Vilas Sapde, a dabbawalla at Lower Parel. Each dabbawalla makes about 5-7,000 rupees (CAD$100-140) a month - average pay for an unskilled/partly-skilled Indian in an urban setup.

Dabbas separated according to the
dabbawalla carrying them.

But no profession is without its problems, and this one is no different. Besides the low income, dabbawallas face other troubles. "Travelling by the local train is very cumbersome," says Sanjay. While the railway system is great for its frequency, rush hour crowds never seem to abate. Platforms are always filled with passengers, making it difficult for the dabbawallas to carry so many tiffins in the rush. Once on the train, they are able to use the luggage compartment while carrying dabbas to their destinations. "Besides that, there is always the worry that a client might discontinue the service, which would mean much less revenue for us," says Mr. Sapde.

Humble as their profession is, dabbawallas are known to one and all. According to The Guardian, they function with 99.999 per cent precision, in other words, one error in six million deliveries. Their efficiency has earned them a Six Sigma Quality Certification from Forbes magazine. Prince Charles met with these industrious men while visiting India in November 2003. The story goes that the dabbawallas requested that the meeting be arranged so not to interfere with their daily deliveries. It's no wonder that the company's representatives have given lectures on time and supply chain management at the India Economic Summit.

When speaking about supply, there is always the question of demand. Who are the clients? Despite a world of canteens and fast food, India's tradition of hot, home-cooked meals remains unmarred. The unique selling proposition of the dabbawallas is that they guarantee the customer a healthy, sumptuous meal which no canteen or restaurant can offer. Most clients are office workers; many are also students. School children also benefit from the dabbawallas' services when stay-at-home moms use the service to send a hot lunch.

Those who engage the dabbawallas' services come from different demographic groups. A college student living away from home in a hostel can opt for a dabba service as easily as the manager of a large company. The average customer earns at least 10-12,000 rupees (CAD$200-240) per month.

A dabbawalla brings a cart 
to the loading area.

Eating out might have its advantages, but there's nothing like a home-cooked meal. Says Shruti, a young professional living in Mumbai, "I stay alone in Mumbai since my family is in Pune. I like to cook, so I often decide that I will start cooking at home and bring lunch with me to work, but that doesn't end up happening because I am usually too tired at the end of the day to do it. I still prefer to have home-cooked food only, so I order from a catering lady who sends homemade food. And that's where the dabbawalla comes in. Meghna, the caterer, sends the dabba through the dabbawalla and by 12 noon sharp, the dabba reaches my office every day." Dabbawallas are getting more clients as the number of working women in India grows. These women have little time to dedicate to cooking before they leave for work. And with increasing incomes, people can afford to engage the services of dabbawallas.

Although most have little formal education, dabbawallas can teach valuable lessons. They are punctual, and very honest; it is not uncommon to have wallets, watches and even cheque books show up in dabbas. But, above all, their integrity and pride in what they do is remarkable. When I asked Mr. Sapde if I could return the next day to take some pictures, he replied, "Sure, but please come a little early as we cannot be late in our delivery." What else could I expect him to say? If Prince Charles was no exception, how could I hope to be?

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