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Dabbawallahs: The lifeline of Mumbai

If you come across ‘Bhaau’ wearing the same old attire, the white cotton kurta-pyjamas with a ‘Gandhi Topi’ and carrying wooden crates full of lunch-boxes above their head while travelling in the ‘locals’, you know you are in the maximum city, Mumbai.

It was way back in the late nineteenth century, when Mumbai was known by the name of Bombay under the British Rule, that Mahadeo Havaji Bachche started a lunch delivery service with about a hundred men. Today, on an average, around 4,500 to 5,000 Dabbawallahs deliver as huge as two lakh tiffin boxes each day.

Though the work sounds simple, it is actually a highly specialized trade that is over a century old and which has become integral to Mumbai’s culture. It is frequently claimed that dabbawallahs make less than one mistake in every six million deliveries. So much so that, in 2005, the Indian Institute of Management (Ahmedabad) featured a case study on the Mumbai Dabbawallahs from a management perspective of logistics.

Mumbai being India’s most densely populated city with a huge flow of traffic, lengthy commutes to workplaces are common, with many workers traveling by train. Instead of going home for lunch or paying for a meal in a café, 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 dabbawallahs, who have a complex association and hierarchy across the city. A collecting dabbawallah, 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 distinguishing mark on them, such as a colour or symbol (most dabbawallahs are illiterate). The dabbawallah then takes them to a designated sorting place, where he and other collecting dabbawallahs 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 car 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 dabbawallah, who delivers them. The empty boxes, after lunch, are again collected and sent back to the respective houses.

Hetvi Ganatra

(The views expressed by the author in the article are his/her own.)

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