The Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Association is a streamlined 120-year-old organisation with nearly 5,000 semi-literate members that pick up close to 200,000 lunches from homes and delivers them to students, managers and workers on every working day. Though the service is believed to have started in the 1880s, it officially registered itself only in 1968.
Descendants of the soldiers of the legendary Maharashtrian warrior-king Shivaji, the dabbawalas belong to the Malva caste. They believe in employing people from their own community. So whenever there is a vacancy, the elders recommend a relative from their village.
They are dressed in their trademark white shirt and pyjama and a white Gandhi cap. On an average, a dabbawallah, like an entrepreneur, covers 70 to 80 kilometres in two-and-a-half hours.
As most of the dabbawallahs are illiterate, the Tiffin boxes (dabbas) have some sort of distinguishing mark on them such as a colour or a symbol. Once collected, the dabbas are sorted into groups, put in the coaches of trains with markings to identify the destination of the box. At each station, the dabbas are handed over to a local dabbawala, who delivers them. The empty dabbas are collected again and sent back to the respective houses after lunch.
The service is uninterrupted even on the days of extreme weather, such as Mumbai’s characteristic monsoons. The local dabbawalas at the receiving and the sending ends 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. Occasionally, people communicated between home and work by putting messages inside the boxes!!! However, this was before the accessibility of instant telecommunications.
A BBC crew filming dabbawalas in action was amazed at their speed. Following their dabbawalas was not easy for the film crew, and they quickly lost him in the congestion of the train station. As was expected, the lunch had arrived long before the film crew at the delivery point!!!
The internationally-acclaimed Mumbai ‘tiffinmen’ make just one error in every 16 million transactions. The renowned magazine ‘Forbes’ gave a Six Sigma performance rating to the dabbawalas, which means the chances of missing a day’s lunch is just one in 6,000.
Today, the food habits of the customers are fast changing. Many offices offer lunch coupons and several double income working families prefer eating at the workplace/eating out. This might lead some to believe that the dabbawalas as an institution is gradually dying and might be extinct in the next 15 years. The dabbawalas are confident that some clients may move away, but children will continue to go to school and people to offices. As long as people feel hungry, the dabbawalas will exist…