Mumbai – Dabbawalas

Feeding Mumbai – Dabbawalas

It’s noon and you are on the streets of Mumbai: If you see a guy in a white shirt and a little white hat, packed with loads of bags, frantically pushing his way through the crowds – You better get out of his way.
He’s got a reputation to live up to.

About 5,000 Dabbawalas are roaming the streets of Mumbai every day. Delivering lunch boxes to workers at their offices. Nearly 200,000 boxes a day, it is said. They don’t use motorised vehicles as often done by our delivery services in the West.
No, Dabbawalas only walk, use bicycles and public transport. Old-school. After 126 years (!) of practice, their system is so precise that even business schools teach their students this bespoke system.

But let’s start from the beginning.
Their name derived from ‘Dabba’ – That’s Hindi for the tiffin box in which meals are transported. So Dabbawala can be translated with “one who carries the box”.

They transport your lunch from your apartment door to your office desk. Dabbawalas are unique to Mumbai, due to its good infrastructure. Every destination can be reached within 2 hours by bicycle and train.

Dabbawalas are getting ready for delivery near Mumbai's Churchgate station.
Dabbawalas are getting ready for delivery near Mumbai’s Churchgate station.

And this is how the concept of the famous Dabbawalas works:
At around 9am a Dabbawala is starting his tour to pick up the boxes at his customer’s home, chances are by bicycle. They know the area they work in extremely well, but also the relationship to the families is very personal and based on trust. They never open the boxes they are entrusted with, but from their customers it’s known that traditionally the boxes were also used to deliver little messages or a flower to the loved one at work.

After having collected all the boxes of his district he brings them to the next train station where he also meets other Dabbawalas. Together they load all the boxes onto the train goods compartment, there they are sorted and re-arranged according to destination, and together they go to Mumbai’s main train stations.

Here – again – more Dabbawalas are meeting up, again re-arranging the boxes and loading them onto bicycles and long push carts. Then they split up and everyone is on his way to the big office buildings and even schools. The Dabba has arrived with its owner by 1pm.

But this doesn’t mean the Dabbawalas’ job is done. Dabbawalas also will have brought the boxes back to each home by 6pm, going through the same collection points like on their way to the office.

One lunch box can go through up to 6 Dabbawalas’ hands on its way from your home to your office.

Dabbas that arrived by train are transported out of the station by Mumbai's Dabbawalas
Dabbas that arrived by train are transported out of the station.

When observing the men at work and knowing what journey the boxes made, we really wondered what kind of system they are using and how they don’t get the boxes mixed up.

Dabbawala, tiffin box, code system
A bespoke code system is used to handle the thousands of tiffin boxes each day.

Due to most of the Dabbawalas being illiterate, they have developed a bespoke code system, using colors and signs for the tiffin boxes to find their office and home address. The code system has not been revealed in detail but it is extremely flawless: Forbes magazine conducted a study in 1998 and gave them a Sigma Six efficiency rating of 99.999999%, which means they make 1 error in 6 million transactions. Guess all airlines can learn from them.

It’s a tight-knit community, all Hindus and all men by the way. You could almost call it a professional caste.

As they work hand in hand, day in, day out, it’s their closeness and like-mindedness that brings the success and the management skills they are known for amongst business leaders world-wide.

The also earn quite well. The average salary for a Dabbawala is about 8,000 – 12,000 Rs a month (amount varies according to source) which currently equals to about 110 – 166 Euros. This is a decent salary for manual labour. Every Dabbawala receives the same income, no matter his experience or age. They are officially not employees but are all equal shareholders of the Dabbawala trust. They enjoy job security and are well respected by society.

But some questions remain:
Why all this? Why do Mumbai workers not bring their lunch with them to work themselves? Why the need for Dabbawalas?

Don’t forget that using the Dabbawalas’ service costs about 10$ per month (sounds not much to us, but it’s a lot if you get an Indian salary and live in Mumbai).

An elderly Mumbai local we spoke to at Churchgate explained:
Navigating by train in Mumbai is just too stressful and the trains are too crowded to have more than a wallet and phone on you. This sounds strange if you haven’t seen it, but we have experienced some train rides during rush hour: It makes sense.
The ruthlessness with which locals fight their way on and off the train is astonishing, to say the least. There is no priority given to the people exiting the trains. You literally need to fight your way off a train, pushing with everything you have against the crowds that are streaming in the opposite direction. Manners are completely forgotten at this time. Until everyone found their spot.
So don’t even think about bringing along a big bag of hot food. It’s definitely safer with the pros.

And regarding the luxury of a home cooked meal: Traditionally in India working people are either married or still live with their parents, so there is always a loving woman close by to prepare the meal in the morning and to hand it to the Dabbawala, long after the working part of the family has left the house.

A Dabbawala is seen crossing a street in Mumbai
Out for Delivery

Whilst in 2007 the New York Times predicted a growth of 5-10% per year for the business, an article in the from November 2016 talks about its stagnation as a consequence of changing food habits among young people. Other reasons are the changing roles within a marriage (with the wife also going to work) and more and more restaurants popping up all over the city.

However, business is still thriving and I love the way the men, coming from a lower social class, proudly work alongside the office workers and follow a similar daily schedule.

They are highly respected for their work, visited even by FedEx, Richard Branson (Virgin) and Prince Charles to get some insights and even films tell their story (The Lunchbox).

The Parsi banker who started the tradition of the Dabbawalas in 1890 surely didn’t expect to kick off such a trend that is a visible part of Mumbai life even today.
One can assume with the wide spread introduction of the cell phones however, the little messages have disappeared from the tiffin boxes. But the old-fashioned part of me likes to think that some people still communicate that way.


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