Pride of India – 5000 Mumbai ‘Dabbawalas’ reach out for food

The Pride of India, 5000 Mumbai ‘Dabbawalas’ who delivered on-time home cooked food to 2 lakh customers across Mumbai every day, are themselves today reaching out for food relying on NGOs and state rations. The COVID-19 nationwide lock down has largely affected the cooperative member ‘dabbawalas’ of the Mumbai Dabbawala Association. While they have urged the State government to provide financial support of INR 5,000 each to every dabbawala, to tide over this difficult period, it remains to be seen how long before they can get back to work. Not everyone has the option of ‘work from home’.

The Migrant worker story continues

Dabbawalas in Mumbai stopped their lunch service on March 19 when the coronavirus scare began to spread. Though 10% of Mumbai’s workforce besides the essential services workers are back in offices today, there is an uncertainty about when the Dabbawalas will resume their full-fledged service. The reasons being,

  1. People may still be wary of using their services because of the pandemic
  2. Local trains yet not wholly functional
  3. Many dabbawalas left Mumbai to return to their villages in Junnar, Ambegaon, Rajgurunagar, Maval, Haveli, Mulshi, and other parts of the district.

Image credits: BBC

A brief background of the Dabbawalas

Dabbawalas is a 130-year-old lunch box or tiffin box delivery and return system delivering hot lunches to officegoers mostly from their homes to their offices in Mumbai. In 1890, Mahadeo Havaji Bachche started a lunch delivery service in Bombay with approximately 100 men. In the absence of a large number of restaurants, canteens, or an eating-out culture then, the idea of delivering home-made food germinated. In 1930, Bachche attempted to unionize the dabbawalas but it was not until 1956 that he could register the delivery service as a charitable trust in the name of Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Trust. In 1968, the commercial division of the trust registered itself as Mumbai Tiffin Box Supplier’s Association.

Image Credits: The Independent
Why is the dabbawala model unique?

The dabbawala model or tiffinwalla model relies on unskilled labor who have not studied beyond Class VIII to manage the business from deliveries, to payments to accounting. Yet, it has proven to be the most successful business model and is considered as one of the world’s highly efficient logistics systems with the lowest margin of error. In 2010 the Harvard Business School graded the dabbawala logistics model as “Six Sigma”, which means the dabbawalas make fewer than 3.4 mistakes per million transactions. Their calculation was loosely based on 400 delayed or missing dabbas in a year from 200,000 deliveries to and fro each day. This workforce uses a coding method as the tiffins travel usually on bicycle or on foot, either from a receiver’s home or from a community kitchen, onto Mumbai’s local trains to reach their destination.

The tiffin boxes or ‘dabbas’ use an esoteric alphanumeric color code scrawled on each lunchbox that indicates,

  • Abbreviations for collection points,
  • Colour code for starting station,
  • Number for destination station, and
  • Markings for handling dabbawala at destination, building and floor.

The coded lunch boxes are first taken to a sorting place, where collecting dabbawalas sort the lunch boxes into groups. The grouped boxes are then loaded in local trains, with markings to identify the destination of the box. The markings include the railway station to unload the boxes and the destination building delivery address. At each station, boxes are handed over to a local dabbawalas, who deliver them to the offices. The delivery schedule also has built-in buffers. Every dabbawala plans a delivery schedule before time to allow for any last minute hurdles. Also, behind every 15 to 20 dabbawalas there is always one dabbawala on stand-by to offer assistance during unforeseen emergencies.

The entire string of operations sans technology works backward when the empty boxes are collected after lunch to be sent back to the respective houses or kitchens.

How to become a dabbawala?

Most dabbawalas belong to the Vakari community in Maharashtra, who worship the Hindu deity Vithala. Since Vithala preaches giving food is one of the greatest donations you can make, the community continues to deliver food while both earning a livelihood and walking the path of spirituality.

In the cooperative, all dabbawalas are equal partners. They do elect supervisors called mukadams but the two-tier model treats everyone as equal.

To join the cooperative, a varkari is required to contribute a minimum capital in kind, in the form of two bicycles, a wooden crate for the tiffins, white cotton kurta-pyjamas, and the white Gandhi cap (topi). Each dabbawala earns the same income that is around INR 12,000 per month. They also enjoy additional benefits like discounted mobile phone subscriptions and educational scholarships for their children. Many dabbawalas are over the age of 50 and there is no retirement age in this business.

They are strictly banned from consuming alcohol and tobacco. Fines are also imposed if they are out of uniform and absent from duty. 

Recognition in India and Beyond
  • The Best Teacher awardee 1994, Pawan G. Agrawal completed his Ph.D. in ‘A Study & Logistics & Supply Chain Management of Dabbawala in Mumbai’.
  • In 2005, the students of IIM (Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad) used the Mumbai Dabbawallas model as a case study in logistics.
  • In 2010, Harvard Business School, Boston, USA in its executive management program included the case study The Dabbawala System: On-Time Delivery, Every Time.
  • A Cross-Cultural Study of the Literacy Practices of The Dabbawalas: Towards a New Understanding of Non-mainstream Literacy and its Impact on Successful Business Practices’ was the Ph.D. research subject for Uma S. Krishnan in 2014.
  • The 5,000-strong cooperative has hosted executives from FedEx and Amazon and even dignitaries like Prince Charles and Richard Branson
How well do you know your dabbawala?
  • On March 21, 2011, Prakash Baly Bachche entered Guinness world record by carrying three dabbawala tiffin crates on his head at one time.
  • Dabbawalas joined the cause to fight corruption during Anna Hazare’s rally at Azad Maidan in 2011
  • The Bollywood film titled The Lunchbox released in 2013 is based on the dabbawala service.
  • Dabba or tiffin distribution is suspended for five days each March as the Mumbai tiffin-wallahs go home for the annual village festival.
  • Featured in BBC’s documentary and in various publications like WSJ, Forbes, NYT, and Economist.
  • Companies like CocaCola, Pizza Hut, Hindustan Unilever, Microsoft, UTI Mutual Fund, and Radio Mirchi have at some point turned to Mumbai’s dabbawalas for their marketing initiatives.
  • 200 members have started to work part-time (post-lunch deliveries) with Swiggy, Runnr, and Raw Pressery to supplement their income.
Mumbai’s dabbawalas get a helping hand in COVID-19

Sadly few who left Mumbai to return to their villages to work in paddy farms suffered a loss of property and crop in the recent Nisarga cyclone. Others who stayed behind in Mumbai were unable to provide food for their families.

At such a time actor Kunal Kapoor stepped forward to organize a crowd-funding campaign. Actors Suneil Shetty and Sanjay Dutt came forward to create awareness to ensure Mumbai’s dabbawalas have sufficient resources to tide them over the current COVID-19 situation.  MLA Aslam Shaikh, highlighted their plight to Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray proposing an interim INR 2,000 per month aid and alongside distributed 2500 ration kits. Also, Chandreyi Jhunjunwala of JHUNSS1 Foundation has reached out to the dabbawalas living in different parts of Mumbai to provide 3-week ration kits on regular basis until the situation improves and the members are back at work. Such an honourable gesture, reaching out to those hands that have largely contributed to feed Mumbai.

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