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The dabbawalas of Mumbai

On our trip to Mumbai, Indian metropolis home to around 20 million people and the country’s economic capital, we met the dabbawalasthe city’s lunchbox deliverymen. Imagine a sprawling city stretching along the West coast of India, contained on one side by the Indian ocean and congested day and night. Public transport is slow and overcrowded, employees can’t hope to return home for lunch, but the Indians are ever resourceful for finding solutions for their ever-increasing population. If they can’t go home, then home will come to them!
In 1890, when there were roughly 1 million people living in Mumbai, the banker Mahadeo Havaji Bacche, decided he wanted his wife’s home-cooked food for lunch so he hired a man to deliver it to him at the office. From there grew what has become India’s largest and most efficient food delivery network, delivering 200,000 dabbas a day thanks to 5,000 unflagging dabbawalas, easily identifiable by their white Ghandi caps.
dabba, which literally means “box”, contains a full meal made at home often by a wife (or mother) for her husband (or son) at work. This tasty meal is made up of rice, bread, vegetables and masalas (spicy sauce mix), each placed in their own tier of the dabba (or tiffin). Each dabba has its own specific code made up of symbols, numbers and colours indicating where the dabba is picked up, which railway station it’s headed for and of course the address of its owner. The whole system is even more incredible considering that the vast majority of dabbawalas are illiterate.
At around 10am, a dabbawala collects the meals prepared at home in his district. He takes them to the nearest railway station where the dabbas will set off for the city centre. The dabbas are sorted depending on the station they are destined for and then when they arrive at the station, about thirty minutes later, the dabbas are placed in designated posts which correspond to a specific code written on the pavements outside the stations in the city.

The dabbas in any given post will be delivered in the same neighbourhood. A new team of dabbawalas takes over for the last leg of the journey and sets off on bike, on foot or with a cart to deliver the dabbas which always arrive just in time for lunch!

And what’s even more astounding is that after lunch the dabbas set off on their return journey with the whole process reversed so that the dabba makes it home even before the employee.
This intricate and highly efficient dabbawala service is the envy of many a logistics company. It has been studied by Harvard Business School, among others, to see how a system made up primarily of illiterate people without any form of technology or information system, can deliver and return 200,000 dabbas a day, on time and with a margin of error of around 1 in 6 million meals. Even during the monsoon, when many other services stop working, the dabba deliveries continue. One of the reasons why Indians have continued to use the dabbawalas over time despite the rise in fast food chains is that they detest this type of food, much preferring home-made food that they know has been carefully prepared by family. This also ensures that each caste can comply with their specific dietary requirements. And to boot, the monthly cost for the service is less than 500₹ (£6), which is the cost of a single meal in a good restaurant in the city. Dabbawalas exist in other towns in Indian, but they are a true institution in Mumbai because the city is so over congested and the most densely populated city in the country. In other towns in India, family can take their home-made meals into the office for the employees at lunchtime, on foot, motorbike or in a rickshaw.
However, the success of the dabbawalas rests heavily on the patriarchal society in India, where women cook for their husbands and sons. There aren’t many cases of men cooking meals for their wives who work in the city centre. But one thing is for sure, there is nothing better than a meal prepared at home with tender loving care and delivered to your workplace!
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