Suppose you have an arduous, multi-modal public transport commute. By the time you arrive at work, you’re sweating buckets, but you’ve arrived without any broken or injured body parts, and your wearables and belongings are intact. You simply thank your stars and get on with your work. This is how Bombay-ites travel every day by what is called in, the city lingo, lokal (local trains). The average commutes of Mumbai residents are long—easily ranging from 1-2 hours, thus requiring early morning departures from homes.
So what’s the big deal? Why not just throw a brown paper–wrapped lunch in your work bag? Nope; in India, a sandwich or salad is not lunch. A typical lunch in Mumbai, and many other places across the country, is roti (whole wheat flatbread) and sabji (cooked vegetables). White rice and lentil dal are common second course, too. Accessories like kachumber (salad) and pickles are optional. As such, the food carrier of choice is the steel tiffin box. But it is almost impossible to carry this 2-4 tiered vessel in the compressed and crushed humanity of the lokals. (Out of Mumbai’s estimated population of 22 million, about 8 million travel to work daily by train.) That’s where dabbawalas come into the picture.
Dabbawalas, a profession established 125 years ago, are to Mumbai (the postcolonial name of Bombay) what hot dog vendors are to New York City, an integral part of the city’s cultural fabric. “Dabba” means lunchbox in Hindi, and “wala,” in this particular nuance, means one who carries it. A dabbawala does not provide lunch; he picks up your homemade lunch or lunch from a special catering service around mid-morning, delivers to your office before 1 p.m., picks it up post-lunch, and brings it back to your home by evening, six days a week. (A six-day week is common across India.)
There are about 5000 dabbawalas in Mumbai delivering 200,000 dabbas a day. Each dabbawala delivers about 35-40 dabbas daily, at the bare bones price of about 800-1000 rupees ($12-15) a month. Late pick-up comes at a premium price of 1500 rupees ($23) a month. This affordable-to-all pricepoint is possible because of their unique, extremely well-organized but simple supply chain management system, which has spawned management case studies, a BBC documentary, countless national as well as international articles, and an invitation to the wedding of Prince Charles (more on this later).
A dabbawala will pick up dabbas from his designated area either on foot or bicycle and bring them to the nearest local train station. Here the dabbas are sorted according to their destination based on an alphanumeric code that’s marked on each lunchbox and transferred to wooden carts. Customer groups are strict and sensitive about their food habits, many for religious reasons. For example, followers of the Jain faith do not eat onions, garlic, potatoes or any other root vegetables. And then there are the city’s many vegetarians, in India, vegetarians do not eat eggs or egg products. A wrong delivery against this backdrop may not only invite customer wrath, but also a tarnished reputation. So the dabbawalas follow the code painted on the dabbas zealously.
A dabbawala carries a cart of several lunchboxes, easily weighing 60-65 kgs (132-143 lbs), on his head—a common sight on Mumbai’s local train stations. He boards the train compartment reserved for luggage. At the destination station, dabbas are sorted again and dispatched to their owner, again by bicycle or on foot. The dabbawala picking up a dabba may not be the same one delivering it, as each dabba goes through 4-5 hands during its journey.
Despite this elaborate to-and-fro dance, the error rate is minuscule. Dabbas are very rarely lost. In a phone conversation, Raghunath Medge, ex-president of Mumbai Dabbawala Association, said that only one tiffin gets stolen or spilled every month or two. In order to prevent disruption of the attached supply chain, the dabbawala will stop providing services to your family if there is a delay in handing over a lunchbox by 3-4 minutes. And if such delay occurs for more than a day, you are asked to shift to the premium service, warned, or even fired as a customer.
For every group of 20-25 dabbawalas, four are on standby to take over in case of a hitch or an accident. The only time a dabba is not delivered is when the train system shuts down, the most common culprit being Mumbai’s infamous rainy season (June-August), which forces millions of people to stay at home (thus making dabba delivery a moot issue).
Over the years, dabbawalas have become a trusted member of a family’s community network, often ending up doing more than what they sign up for. Family members regularly send forgotten eyeglasses or papers along with the dabbas. In a TED talk given by Dr. Pawan Agrawal, who has studied the supply chain management structure of Mumbai's dabbawalas extensively, trust factor is extremely high; he cites an example of a customer who regularly sends his paycheck—in India, workers are often paid in cash—home in his empty lunchbox.
That almost half of the practitioners of this delivery system are illiterate, and the rest have only a couple of years of education under their belt, baffles many supply chain experts. Many dabbawalas can just about read the code and that’s all. In fact, Medge opines that the educated will not last in this business, as they have too many questions and opinions, which detracts from the supreme goal: to deliver a dabba on time.
Experts attribute success of dabbawalas to two factors:
Mumbai’s Train Network: Mumbai’s train system was established by the British in 1853. Often called the backbone of dabbawala network, about 2300 trains run every day, with an interval of not more than 4-5 minutes. With a daily load of 8 million passengers, overcrowding is rampant, and a ride in peak hours can be a scarring experience for the uninitiated. Priced dirt cheap, trains also cut the travel time extraordinarily. Two years ago, it took me 20 minutes and 10 rupees (15 cents), to travel a distance of 11 miles on the Mumbai train. I would have had to cool my heels in a cab for thrice the time and fork out 20 times more money. Utilizing such an affordable and efficient transport system helps dabbawalas keep their prices low.
Work Ethic: Most dabbawalas belong to the Varkari sect, a religious group known for traveling 21 days on foot in the heat of June and July to visit and pray at the temple of their prime deity, Lord Vithoba. Simple living, pious thinking, and abstinence from meat and alcohol are tenets of this sect, along with beliefs like “work is worship” and “providing food is the highest form of charity.” The Mumbai Dabbawala Association grants shareholder status for each and every dabbawala, and has a strict code of conduct. Reporting late for work, reporting under the influence of alcohol, or without Gandhi cap—the white cap identified with Indian independence movement—invites fines. Disputes are settled by an internal committee. Known for their punctuality and unwavering pursuit of timely delivery, dabbawalas do not let anyone interrupt their work, even if that anyone is Prince Charles.
On a visit to India in 2003, having read a news story about them, Prince Charles expressed an interest in meeting dabbawalas. When the British High Commission called, they got the reply that since the dabbawalas didn’t know who Prince Charles was, they would not be interested in meeting him. On being informed that the Prince was actually a prince, and not someone's first name, dabbawalas agreed to meet him, but only between 11 a.m. and 11:40 a.m., and that too at a location of their choice in order to avoid delivery disruption. The Prince agreed and the royal visit took place successfully outside one of the busiest train stations in downtown Mumbai. As a result, two dabbawalas scored an invitation to the 2005 wedding of Prince Charles to Camilla Parker Bowles. The only other Indian national invited was Padmini Devi, the Queen of Jaipur.
Some attention dabbawalas have garnered over years:
Much of this attention is due to the near-absence of technology in a dabbawala’s daily workflow, an important reason for their model’s success, according to many experts. But how long can they stay unaffected by the forces of digitization, especially the food delivery apps? Both Medge and Subhash Talekar, secretary of the Dabbawala Association, dismissed the competition from food apps, which they say is strictly the for of the young, in their twenties and thirties. According to them, once these young ones hit their forties, thanks to health concerns, they are back to home-cooked food and dabbawalas. This round-robin of customers is responsible for their 200,000-customer base being steady over the past few years. Medge proudly gives examples of third generation customers being provided lunchboxes by third generation dabbawalas. Mumbai is a commercial city dominated by traders, stock brokers, diamond merchants, and businessmen, and they, along with school children, are the main customers of dabbawalas.
Even though food apps like Zomato, Deliveroo, UberEats have proliferated the city, they have not yet been able to replicate the network of dabbawalas. Besides, most of these apps deliver restaurant food. After factoring in the cost of food as well as delivery, the cost of one meal for four is close to monthly dabbawala charges.
Yes, the allure of restaurant food is increasing, with the restaurant industry expected to grow at a compounded rate of 10% over the next few years. But health concerns have increased too. India today has the largest number of people suffering from diabetes. This plus the fact home-cooked food remains a big part of daily Indian life means it will be a long time before restaurants make dabbawalas obsolete.
The dabbawalas have embraced their popularity fully. Not only are they enthusiastically open to any inquiry or questioning (every time I called, I was given 10-15 minutes on the phone, even when Mr. Medge was traveling in peak traffic). The association's representatives get invited to workshops and seminars throughout the world to speak of their enviable work ethic, rigorous discipline, and exacting time management. Never to turn down an invitation to explain their modus operandi, the Dabbawala Association is using these opportunities as effective public relations and marketing tools.
In 2007, Coca-Cola used the dabbawala network to distribute free samples of their Minute Maid juice. A few years back, Flipcart, the homegrown Amazon of India, did a pilot project with dabbawalas to explore the last-mile delivery option. Now, some dabbawalas are reported to work with Flipcart in personal capacities in the evening, after delivering lunches. TVS Motor Company, India’s third largest two-wheeler manufacturing company, gave dabbawalas 100 mopeds (to be used instead of bicycles) to test out. Though all these projects were pursued with a nod to the changing times, they were eventually abandoned, as they were adding just a tad bit to delivery times. The Association set up a website in December 2016, still a work in progress. Medge, however, grudgingly admits that all this talk of modernization, the website, adapting to the digitization of times, is a little beyond their scope.
And that in a weird way is the beauty and irony of a delivery system so minimalistic, so threadbare, that even the tiniest of any changes will throw the timings off. All that being said, the Mumbai Dabbawala Association is not free of turmoil. To modernize or not to modernize, to bring in technology or not? New recruits want to change, while the old guards think any change detracts from their core competency. As of yet, this has not affected a dabbawala’s daily routine, but it’s unclear how things will play out. However, Subhash Talekar, the association's secretary, maintains: “A dabbawala will thrive [as long as] you cannot send a meal by email."
Hero image from Wikimedia Commons/Steve Evans