In 1890 Bombay’s Mahadeo Havaji Bachche started a lunch delivery service with about a hundred men working under him. In 1930, he informally attempted to unionise the dabbawalas. Later, a charitable trust was registered in 1956 under the name of Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Trust. The commercial arm of this trust was registered in 1968 as Mumbai Tiffin Box Supplier’s Association. Dabbawalas constitute a lunchbox delivery and return system that delivers hot lunches from homes and restaurants to people at work in India especially in Mumbai. Lunchboxes are picked up in the late mornings, delivered predominantly using bicycles and railway trains and returned empty in the afternoon. Dabbawalas are also used by meal suppliers in Mumbai who pay them to ferry lunchboxes with ready-cooked meals from central kitchens to customers and back. Gradually these unions become the need of the Mumbaikars. I am sure in 1890, they never thought they will become such integral part of Mumbaikar’s life.
The service was born during the British Raj in the 1890s out of sheer necessity. With more and more migrants of varying communities reaching the big city in those days and no fast food culture and office canteens around to calm the hunger pangs at noon, there was a lack of an effective system to ensure that office-workers could eat at lunchtime. There was also a supply of illiterate workers who had travelled to the cities due to agriculture not being able to support them. With insufficient education to work as clerks in British homes, but with enough sinew and energy to undertake any hard work, the idea of delivering home-made food was born. Most tiffin-wallahs are related to each other belong to the Varkari sect of Maharashtra and come from the same small village near Pune. Tiffin distribution is suspended for five days each March as the tiffin-wallahs go home for the annual village festival. These dabbawalas soon became world famous by sending gifts to London’s queen and Kings. They have huge existences. Hundreds of documentaries are made on them and several Bollywood movies are dedicated to them.
These world famous Mumbai dabbawalas will now have homes in the city as Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar has ordered concerned departments to provide houses for them under the PM Awas Yojana which aims to provide housing for all as soon as possible. Most dabbawalas are originally from outside the city and they serve Mumbai with a level of efficiency that has impressed management experts across the world. This particular Union and community itself is a huge vote bank too. This was long pending demand of them. Apart from housing for dabbawalas, Mr Pawar has also cleared a proposal for a ‘dabbawala bhavan’ which will function as a central office and showcase their skilful yet simple and ingenious system. The dabbawalas are known for their error free delivery system and they’ve been studied by Harvard professors and visited by royals from all over the world. Two of them have even attended the wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles in 2005 as representatives of the dabbawalla community on an invitation from the royals. Mumbai’s dabbawalas are famous across the world for their management skills and unique system of marking which enables them to collect lunch boxes from homes of working professionals and deliver them on time in their offices. They deliver two lakh lunch boxes every day but struggle with their own housing needs in Mumbai.
The housing for dabbawalas will be provided under Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana or PMAY scheme that was launched in 2015 with the aim of providing housing for all in urban areas by year 2022. Through the scheme, the centre provides assistance to the implementing agencies through States/Union Territories (UTs) and Central Nodal Agencies (CNAs) for providing houses to all eligible families/ beneficiaries. In an age of computer-controlled food delivery apps, dabbawalas have managed to hold their own in the Maximum City where housing has often been a challenge for many of them. A 2010 study by the Harvard Business School graded their system as “Six Sigma”, which means the dabbawalas make less than 3.4 mistakes per million transactions.
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