Dabbawala is a tiffin service in Mumbai and world famous for making almost error free deliveries of lunch boxes around the business centers in the city. The Dabbawalas collect lunch boxes from homes by early afternoon, deliver them to customers at their offices, pick up empty boxes and return them to its origin before evening.
The story goes like this that a Parsi businessman craved for home cooked food while at work. So he decided to hire a person who would pick up fresh food from his house and bring it to his office. His idea led to the inception of the dabbawala service over a century ago. And since then, the dabbawalas have stood the test of times and emerged as the cultural and heritage identity of Mumbai.
A nearly 130 year old efficient supply chain model has been a topic of interest for academic institutes from India and abroad. The Harvard Business School and the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) have included the Dabbawala case study for management students to understand the complex supply chain system.
Dressed in a simple kurta and a pyajama with a starched white Gandhi Topi (a cap popularized by Mahatma Gandhi during India’s freedom movement) the dabbawalas have attracted attention of many elite and famous individuals, families and business groups. Richard Branson, owner of Virgin Atlantic group himself once traveled with the dabbawalas to deliver a tiffin box to his employees at his local office in Mumbai.
The dabbawalas also share a special relationship with the British Royal Family. Prince Charles during his visit to India in 2003 met up with the dabbawalas and lauded them for their accuracy, time management and honesty in serving their customers. Interestingly, Prince Charles had to align his schedule to meet with the dabbawalas as they didn’t wanted to hamper their routine and miss a local train even if it was for a prince. The Dabbawalas were honored to attend the wedding of Prince Charles with Camilla Parker Bowles in 2005.
Each day around five thousand Dabbawalas deliver about two lakh lunch boxes to offices in Mumbai. Their delivery method follows a unique alpha-numeric color coding system which helps them maintain practically nil errors and primarily involves use of bicycles and local trains for distribution of tiffins. The Dabbawalas have received ISO certification 9001:2000 and Six Sigma rating for their precision and flawless work. Despite being semi-literate, they hold lectures and Ted Talks for companies and management students.
On my recent visit to a premium Shopping Mall in Mumbai, i noticed this art installation of the Mumbai dabbawala called ‘THE SPIRIT OF BOMBAY’ by Valay Shende. The artwork is made up of numerous pieces of clock faces with lunch boxes shaped as a stomach organ in hand. Its a tribute to their selfless service and the creation elegantly displays their time management skills using watches. There are 3 more art installations besides this one and the exhibits will be on display till 15th of August 2019 at Palladium Mall, Lower Parel.
In reality, things are not so elegant and mesmerizing. The glitter and illustrious installation is not a true representation of dabbawalas even though its a good way to acknowledge. The super heroes of Mumbai lead a hard life and their job involves challenges. Delivering lunch boxes during peak hour traffic in packed local trains and riding with 30-40 kgs of additional weight on bicycles is nothing short of going for a mountain bike adventure or completing a time trial race of Tour de France.
A day spent with the Dabawallas:
Like everyday the dabbawala army led by the President and location in-charge Mr. Ullas Shantaram Muke and his team assembled at Grant road office by 9 am. After a quick chat and tea session, each one went to the homes of respective customers to pick-up lunch boxes. And they used their cycles to reach there. On the way back, all of them gathered at Grant road station where the tiffins were sorted as per the area. I saw three different crates with a marking – Andheri, Bandra and Parel.
The tiffins were loaded in the crates and the team of three to four dabbawalas lifted the heavy crates on their head and rushed near the luggage compartment. They get very limited time to move in as the train halts only for few seconds plus there are other passengers with their own luggage’s looking to secure some space. So its a battle against time.
The situation in the carriage isn’t great with non-stop action where passengers are more than the capacity. The dabbawalas sit on floor crossed legged leaning on the wall to get some relief before the next bout.
The train arrived at Bandra station and the dabbawalas zoomed out in split of seconds with crate full of tiffins. I chased them from behind without being an obstruction in their work. As i moved out of the station, i saw a large group – may be twenty five to thirty of them; all busy segregating lunch boxes in a hurry. The group i traveled with had joined the bigger pack so i lost them in the crowd and turned my attention to the activity in progress. As more trains arrived, the entry of more dabbawalas continued with hundreds of tiffins in colorful pouches kept on the pavement. Each dabbawala had their cycles parked outside the station and they started hanging the tiffins on the hooks fitted on the rear carrier and the handle. They take only the boxes which they are responsible to deliver and the unique code enables them to identify the right ones precisely. By 11:45 am the dabbawalas started to leave for different locations in the BKC business centre on their cycles. Usually between 12:30 to 12:45 pm they complete the delivery process. Post taking a lunch break, the dabbawalas again return to the offices to collect empty boxes and the entire process gets executed in reverse order.
(How to read the code: “33” is the person who will be picking up this tiffin. “C5x61” indicates block and office building. “NC” is name initials of the dabbawala. Alphabet “A” mentioned in Hindi means Andheri area. “G” is Grant Road, the place from where this tiffin originated. Seen here is Mr. Ullas coding couple of new boxes.)
Through my observation i noticed a few pain points and they too had their own concerns which they mentioned about during our chat – (Responses are of different individuals)
Are you satisfied with your job?
“I am happy with my job and feel secured working here. It’s been eighteen years of stable work. But i feel a lot of pain in my knees and hands due to excessive weight”.
42 years of service is pretty long, did you ever consider to hang up your boots?
“Am not accustomed to long days of rest even though i have crossed 60. Am addicted to the feel of pedals on my foot. If i rest even for few days i get a feeling of stiffness in the body. I want to continue as long i can”.
Why most of you have brass bells tied on the frame?
“The sounds of these bells beats loneliness. Its music for the ears. And its safety for other people”.
One thing you wish to change in your routine?
“Everything is manageable. We have good understanding in our team. However, sometimes its tough to get into a local”.
What is your biggest concern?
“Safety of our bicycles. There are no parking facilities in the city and we have to be extra vigilant. There have been instances of theft in the past. We usually tie multiple bikes together. These bikes are a source of income for us and we can’t afford to loose them. Plus there are customization’s done to suit our requirements and that’s an add on expenditure we make”.
- A tailor-made Ecargo bike will reduce physical stress of dabbawalas.
- Cycle manufacturers should attend to their needs and develop a design suited for them.
- Authorities should consider building parking sheds which they could also use for charging ebikes.
These are suggestions even the bicycle mayor of Mumbai Ms. Firoza Suresh has made but till now nothing has moved.
“A day spent with the dabbawalas, was like a day of graduation”.
***For more information or photos of dabbawala, you are welcome to write back to me separately using the contact form. Thank you!
Author: Vijay Malhotra, Mumbai