In conversation with YourStory, three of the 5,000 dabbawalas of Mumbai explore their methods and legacy.
For 35-year-old Sulochana, her kitchen is her retreat. Away from the hustle of Mumbai, she finds comfort cooking amidst its stained walls and wooden cupboard. As the clock strikes 10 in the morning, Sulochana waits for a man clad in white. Dabbawalla they call him. With a smile on her face, Sulochana hands to him the lunch she made for her husband and gets back to her kitchen.
There are 3,00,000 women like Sulochana who rely on the precision of Mumbai’s dabbawallas for sending across lunchboxes to various parts of the city. This 125-year-old system of lunchbox delivery and return, operates only in Mumbai and acts as a connect between homes and workplaces.
The dabbawalas have garnered worldwide attention. From visits by Prince Charles and Richard Branson, to employees of Federal Express, a company renowned for its own mastery of logistics, the dabbawalas are now a Harvard case study.
In a conversation with the dabbawalas, at the tenth edition of Jagriti Yatra, we learn about how this food-delivery system started in the hills of Dharamshala and travelled to the heart of Mumbai.
The history of these men in white dates back to almost 1893, when the then 30-year-old Mahadeo Havaji Bachche started this initiative in Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh. A farmer by profession, Mahadev moved to Mumbai to settle down. What started as a small-time business for him evolved into a chain of food delivery when the demand rose and the team grew up to a size of 35 employees.
When asked about the community the dabbawala’s hail from, 42-year-old Prakash Bachai says,
In 1956, a charitable trust was registered under the banner ‘Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Trust’. Natives of Pandharpur in Maharashtra, the dabbawalas follow Varkari Sampradaya and are the devotees of Lord Vitthala
A decentralised system in itself, the source and the destination for the dabbawalas are identified with colour-coding. The dabbawala collects the tiffin boxes and then takes them to a sorting place, where he and other collecting dabbawalas sort the lunch boxes into groups. The grouped boxes are put in the coaches of trains, with markings to identify the destination of the box. The markings include the railway station where the boxes have to unloaded and the delivery address.
At each station, boxes are handed over to a local dabbawala, who delivers them. The empty boxes are collected after lunch or the next day and sent back to the respective houses, adds Prakash
The dabbawalas also allow for delivery requests through SMS. The area covered is mostly Virar, Churchgate, Kalyan/Panvel and CST of Mumbai, the world’s fourth-most-populous city.
Mumbai local trains, which are one of the most extensive, complex, and heavily used urban commuter rails in the world, give a great boost in keeping together the delivery system of the dabbawalas. According to a report by The New York Times in 2007, the industry of the dabbawalas continues to grow at a rate of five to 10 percent per year.
The food-delivery system has a surprisingly high rate of accuracy, so much so that their error rates are 1 in 8 million only. Out of the 260,000 transactions in six hours every day for 52 weeks of a year, the dabbawalas are six sigma compliant for their impressive accuracy, says another worker Kiran Gawade . Workers have 40 seconds to load the crates of dabbas onto a train at major stations and just 20 seconds at interim stops, says a report by Harvard Business Review
Dressed in white uniform with a cap and a bicycle, the tradition of the dabbawalas remains unique. In an intricate network coupled with precise timing and numerous handoffs, they work as a team — every dabbawala is an equal shareholder and earnings are equally divided among all. Around 50 percent of these men have completed their basic education and earn Rs 10,000 to Rs 12,000 every month. Since the dabbas are transported mostly through bicycles or local trains, the entire food-delivery system consumes zero fuel.
At the Jagriti Yatra, the 35-year-old who has been employed as a Dabbawala for the past 5 years, adds
Bombay is such a crowded place and it is difficult to stand out. The white uniform helps us stay unique so even if the dabbas are displaced, the uniform helps us communicate better.
The Harvard Business Review report further adds that the dabba system is a self-organised system with respect to hiring, logistics, customer acquisition and retention, and conflict resolution.
The local dabbawalas at the sending and the receiving end are known to the customers personally; so, that there is no question of lack of trust. Also, they are well accustomed to the local areas they cater to, which allows them to access any destination with ease. They rely on bicycles, carriages and local trains to transport the lunchboxes during the round trip. On an average, every lunch box changes hands four times and travels 60-70 km to reach its eventual destination.
Each box is differentiated and sorted along the route on the basis of markings on the lid, which indicates the source as well as the destination address, says 51-year-old Bala Sab.
He also provides a quick summary of the steps between the time the lunchbox is picked up from a house and gets returned by evening:
•The first dabbawala collects the lunchbox from the house and marks it with a unique code.
•Each dabbawala meets at a designated place where the boxes get sorted and grouped into a carriage.
•The second dabbawala marks the carriage uniquely to represent the destination and puts that in a local train. The markings include the local rail station where the box needs to be unloaded and also the address where it has to be finally delivered.
•The third dabbawala travels along with the dabbas in the local train to hand over the carriages at each station.
•The fourth dabbawala picks up the dabbas from the train, decodes the final destination, and delivers it.
The process is just reversed in the evening to return the empty lunchboxes.
With food-tech companies like Zomato and Swiggy taking the center stage, it is overwhelming to see Mumbai’s dabbawalas remain reliable for the past 125 years and continue with the same spirit.