16 Mar 2020 17:35 IST

Mumbai’s dabbawalas — an operation that ticks all the boxes

The complex delivery process sees each dabba pass through the hands of 12 dabbawallas every day

In the film The Lunchbox, a romance develops between the hero and heroine after a sequence of wrong lunch box deliveries by dabbawalas. Since this community of service-persons is practically an institution in Mumbai, famed for their zero-error delivery system, they objected to the premise on which the film was based — and got the producer to apologise for the same!

Mumbai’s dabbawalas came into existence backed by the simple belief that home-cooked food is also a brand, and that nothing can replace it. The story goes that, about 130 years ago, a Parsi banker arranged for home-cooked food to be delivered at his office at lunchtime every day by a person who was then known as bhonawala (meal-man). The idea soon caught on, with others requesting the bhonawala’s services.

Mahadeo Havaji Bachche, a migrant from Maval, recognised the business opportunity the service presented. He began work in the Fort district, carrying hot food from homes to government offices on foot (the suburban railway — the lifeline for the dabbawalas today — was developed much later). He roped in others and soon the food deliverers came to be known as dabbawalas as they delivered food in dabbas (round, tiered steel containers). In 1956, a charitable trust, Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Trust was registered. In 1968, the trust’s commercial arm, Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Association (MTBSA), came into existence.

The system operated on a worker-employer basis till about 1980, with 20-25 people under a contractor. The 1975 railway strike and the mill strike that paralysed Mumbai and caused losses everywhere, made the contractors realise that a strike among dabbawalas would mean customers would go hungry. To pre-empt unionisation, every dabbawala was made a shareholder.

All dabbawalas belong predominantly to the Varkari community and worship Lord Vithala, whose main teaching is that anna daan is maha daan (donating food is the best charity). This is the basic tenet on which the service operates, even today.

Accuracy and efficiency

A basic education up to Std 7is a must for everyone who joins. Also, a minimum investment of about ₹5,000 is required — for a bicycle, a wooden crate to carry the tiffin boxes, a white kurta-pyjama set and the Gandhi topi.

Elections are held to select the President and supervisors (mukadams), who were once dabbawalas themselves. About 15-25 dabbawalas operate under the watchful eyes of four mukadams, who not only supervise the sorting of tiffins but also settle disputes, bring in line absentees or workers who consume alcohol while on duty, maintain receipt and payment records, train new recruits and acquire new customers.

A student paints a Dabbawala on a wall outside Matunga Station, Mumbai, on February 27, 2016.

 

 

After the ambulance and the police car, the dabbawala is probably the only entity for whom the public and even the traffic police make way on Mumbai roads. His code of ethics is strict — nothing and no one can prevent the delivery of food on time to a customer. Recently, when a dabbawala died in an accident while on duty, a mukadam rushed to the spot and ensured that the delivery of the dabbas was not interrupted: the customers were probably not even aware that a major tragedy had taken place.

Once a dabbawala has collected all the dabbas in his area in the morning, he ferries them to the station, where they are marked and sorted according to their destinations. The coding system used for marking, which a new recruits needs three-four months to master, denotes the pick-up area, destination, building and floor. All four are represented through abbreviations, colours, numbers and symbols, respectively. In the beginning, coloured threads were used. At the destination, the tiffin boxes are sorted and grouped again according to the specific area codes, and then delivered.

A management lesson

The same exercise is repeated in the evening when empty tiffin boxes are collected and returned to the houses. Thus, a single dabba will pass through the hands of 12 dabbawalas. What is even more astonishing is the speed, accuracy and efficiency with which these men operate — at pick up and drop off stations, they get just 20-40 seconds to load or unload entire crates of 30-35 dabbas each, while taking care of their own footing and balance among the crowds.

Today, over 5,000 dabbawalas work various routes in Mumbai, delivering roughly 2,00,000 lunches (4,00,000 touch points) every day.

Efficiency, time management, coordination and culture are the four pillars on which the system is based. This is what got them the Six Sigma efficiency rating of 99.99 from Forbes Global in 1998, and it is what makes each step in their delivery process a management lesson in itself. The dabbawalas have participated in more than 3,500 seminars to date, explaining the methodology behind their uninterrupted service to clients. The only time the dabbawalas interrupted their daily service was when they took a day off to support Anna Hazare in his anti-corruption campaign.

Prince Charles, Richard Branson, executives from organisations such as Amazon and FedEx and management school students have spent time studying the secret of their success.

 

Virgin Group founder Richard Branson with dabbawalas in Mumbai on April 1, 2005.

 

Zero-carbon business

The dabbawalas have now started offering other services as well. They have their own website with SMS and online ordering and even offer home-cooked food for those whose families are not in Mumbai. Advertisers have shown interest in using their services, especially as specific locations and sample groups can be targeted with ease through this network, but the dabbawalas are firm that any advertising must add value to their customers. Through stickers and tie-on labels, events such as World Aids Day, information on organ donation and products like Dettol Kitchen gel get advertised.

The dabbawalas are more than equal to the task of doing their bit for society. An initiative in which customers are given ‘share my dabba’ stickers to put on dabbas that contain leftover food ensures that about 16 tonnes of uneaten food is distributed among street children instead of going waste. In 2014, the World Heath Organisation (WHO) used dabbawalas to spread awareness about malaria and dengue.

The dabbawalas are proud that theirs is a zero-carbon business. There is no technology, no paper or plastic usage, no fuel-consuming vehicles used for transport and, hence, no pollution.

This ISO 9001:2000 certified network has also won the 2019 International Product and Service Awards (IPSA) Certificate of Excellence.

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