In the mid-1880s a Parsi banker began to employ an errand illiterate boy? To collect lunch from his home in the Grant Road area and deliver it to his office in the Ballard District. Owing to the absence of catering facilities within the nearby factories and offices the errand boy quickly picked up additional orders to deliver the tiffin boxes, and looked to his friends and family members from Pune? To help him build his business of delivering dabbas…
The errand illiterate boy …Late Mahadeo Havaji Bachche a migrant from Pune is considered the pioneer of Dabbawalla service in Mumbai way back in 1880. He started the lunch delivery service with about 100 men most of them drawn from Pune and, linked by a strong sense of kinship, they proudly express their Maharashtrian identity through their simple white cotton attire and Nehru caps. Initially the delivery cost the client Rs.2 a month.
The dabbawalla service was originated in 1880. Later, in 1930, Late Mahadeo Havaji Bachche informally unionize the dabbawallas and 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 Carriers Association. The present President of Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Trust is Raghunath Medge and Gangaram Talekar is secretary of the trust.
The delivery chain..Mumbai is India's most densely populated city with a huge flow of traffic and the train travelers staying far of locations, it poses a problem during lunch time. As most of the working people prefer homemade food, which is very healthy and also comes at less cost. Instead many office workers have a homemade meal delivered it to them, 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.
The dabbawala usually collects dabbas from homes on bicycle. The dabbas have some sort of distingushing mark on them, such as a color or symbol. 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. 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.
More than 175,000 lunch boxes get moved every day by an estimated 5,000 dabbawalas, all with an extremely small nominal fee and with utmost punctuality. A total of 400,000 transactions every single day - with scarcely a mistake. According to a recent survey, the system has registered a Six Sigma performance at 99.999999 rating. That put them on the list of Six Sigma rated companies, along with multinationals like Motorola and GE.
On an average, every tiffin box changes hands four times and travels 60-70 kilometers in its journey to reach its eventual destination. Each box is differentiated and sorted along the route on the basis of markings on the lid, which give an indication of the source as well as the destination address.
The dabawallaws are not employees but co-owners of the enterprise. Each dabbawala is also required to contribute a minimum capital in kind, in the form of two bicycles, a wooden crate for the tiffins, white cotton kurta-pyjamas, and the white trademark Gandhi topi (cap). The return on capital is ensured by monthly division of the earnings of each unit. Everyone who works within this system is treated as an equal and gets paid about two to four thousand rupees per month.
- Each group of dabbawalla’s delivering dabbas, is a group of 2 to 3 extra members who take the responsibility to deliver the dabbas incase of any untoward happenings.
- Consuming alcohol while on duty attracts a fine of Rs 1,000.
- Unwarranted absenteeism is not tolerated and is treated with a similar fine.
- Every dabbawalla gets a weekly off, usually on Sunday.
- The Gandhi cap serves as a potent symbol of identification in the crowded railway stations. Not wearing the cap attracts a fine of Rs 25.
- There are no specific selection criteria like age, sex or religion; however. The credentials of the candidates are thoroughly verified and a new employee is taken into the fold for six-month probation. After that period, the employment is regularised with a salary of Rs 5,000 a month.
- It is interesting to note there is no retirement age, and any person can work till he is fit enough to carry on the tasks required of him.
How the dabba is delivered
- The first dabbawalla picks up the tiffin from home and takes it to the nearest railway station.
- The second dabbawalla sorts out the dabbas at the railway station according to destination and puts them in the luggage carriage.
- The third one travels with the dabbas to the railway stations nearest to the destinations.
The fourth one picks up dabbas from the railway station and drops them of at the offices.
- The process is reversed in the evenings.
Features on Mumbai Dabbawalla’s
- BBC has produced a documentary on Dabbawalas, which was part of a series on unique businesses of the world.
- In 2002, Jonathan Harley, a reporter, did a story on the Dabbawalas with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).
- In 2003, Paul S. Goodman and Denise Rousseau, faculty at the Graduate School of Industrial Administration of Carnegie Mellon University, made full-length documentary called 'The Dabbawallas'.
- Two Dutch filmmakers, Jascha De Wilde and Chris Relleke, in 1998 made a documentary called 'Dabbawallahs, Mumbai's unique lunch service'.
- Director Manohar Sarvankar shot a full-length Marathi feature film effectively portraying the life of Dabbawallas 'Mumbaicha Dabbewala'. The fictional story penned by Pratap Gangawane in which real life incidents of the dabbawallas are weaved in.
The Dabbawallas have been featured in the Guinness book of Records and also in Ripley’s Believe it or Not.
Though the Mumbai Dabbawallas are simple, semi-illiterated they have big fans. They are the likes of Prince Charles to Richard Branson to the big management institutions. The dabbawallas have been invited to speak on their management mantras to top business schools like IIMs, Symbiosis institutes, WTC, for the last six years.