Mumbai is not called the city of dreams for nothing. If one pauses for a while to look at the life around, a million stories of human enterprise would be seen moving about from and to all directions. One such story is that of the internationally acclaimed group called ‘dabbawalas’.

Dabbawalas are people in who carry and deliver freshly made food from home in lunch boxes (called dabbas) to office workers. They are also called, generally by non-Mumbaikars, tiffin-wallas.

History suggests that The dabbawala originated when India was under British rule: many Indian people who worked in British companies disliked the British food served by the companies, so a service was set up to bring lunch to them in their workplace straight from their home. Nowadays, Indian businessmen are the main customers for the dabbawalas, and the service often includes cooking as well as delivery.

How it Works:

Instead of going home for lunch or paying for a meal in the canteen or a restaurant, many office workers have a cooked meal sent by a caterer who delivers it to them as well, essentially cooking and delivering the meal in lunch boxes and then having the lunch boxes collected and re-sent the next day. This is usually done for a monthly fee. The meal is  cooked in the morning and sent in lunch boxes carried by dabbawalas, who have a complex association and hierarchy across the city.

A collecting dabbawala, usually on bicycle, collects dabbas from homes or, more often, from the dabba makers (who actually cook the food). The dabbas have some sort of distingushing mark on them, such as a color or symbol (most dabbawalas are illiterate).

The dabbawala then takes them to a designated sorting place, where he and other collecting dabbawalas sort (and sometimes bundle) the lunch boxes into groups. The grouped boxes are put in the coaches of trains, with markings to identify the destination of the box (usually there is a designated colour for the boxes). The markings include the rail station to unload the boxes and the building address where the box has to be delivered.

At each station, boxes are handed over to a local dabbawala, who delivers them. The empty boxes, after lunch, are again collected and sent back to the respective houses.

The Rest of the Phenomenon:

Before getting into the logistics of the mind-numbing operation, we feel the urge to share with you this nugget:
Before the advent of the communication revolution, a lot of people used to put chits inside the tiffin boxes, to communicate with each other. How about “mein khana nahin, apna dil bhej rahi hoon. Shaam ko saath lete aana”, from a newly wed to her husband? Cho chweet na?

Continuing with the amazing story, everyone who works within this system is treated as an equal. Regardless of a dabbawala’s function, everyone gets paid about 2-4,000  rupees per month. (Hail democracy!) More than 175,000 lunches get moved every day by an estimated 5,000 dabbawalas, all with an extremely small nominal fee and with utmost punctuality. According to a recent survey, there is only one mistake in every 6,000,000 deliveries. The American business magazine Forbes gave a Six Sigma performance rating for the precision of dabbawalas. Eat that!
What sets them apart from the rest of us is that there are no ‘rainy days’ in their field. Come heat, cold or rains, dabbawalas make sure that the office goers get their food, in time at that.

Little wonder then, not only have the dabbawalas managed to meet the high and mighty from across the world but also become a case study for management schools. Always a darling of media, their stories are chronicled somewhere or the other, every day. In real terms, the concept was last heard to have been replicated in the Bay Area of USA for the benefit of Indian techies in the silicon valley. Need dabbawalas ask for any bigger compliment?

As a parting shot, savour this for a self-description by Raghunath D. Medge, president of the Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box

Supply Charity Trust:

“Our computer is our head and our Gandhi cap is the cover to protect it from the sun or rain”

If this does not stir the entrepreneur or the go-getter in us, we need some serious introspection.


Author. Entrepreneur. Filmmaker. Journalist.

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