Dabbawallahs: carriers that feed a hungry Mumbai every day

The humble dabbawallahs ensure that India’s financial centre does not come to a grinding halt at lunch time


Geetanjali Minhas | March 18, 2014

E-VLP-3-10-MT-12. Twenty years back this smattering mishmash of words, dashes and numbers helped love blossom between 45-year-old senior finance professional Samyak Chattopadhyay and his 43-year-old banker wife Barnali Banerjee. Both were fledging finance professionals learning their trade with a brokerage firm when one day they picked up each other’s dabbas from the reception counter.

“When we opened our lunch boxes we realised that our food was practically the same, including the macharjhol (mustard fish) which was a Friday special,” says Barnali. “Samyak came up to me when he realised the mistake and we started talking.” Both shared a cook and a dabbawallah, and over many a meal of mustard fish came to share a home and two children. So when the Hindi movie Lunchbox hit the screens both grabbed the first opportunity to watch it. The film revolves around an unlikely bond of love that develops between a man grieving for his dead wife and a woman wanting to rekindle the spark with her husband by cooking good food, when the lunchbox meant for her husband reaches the widower.

“I loved the movie. It’s a simple story, and reminded us of the uncomplicated times that we lived in,” said Chattopadhyay nostalgically. “But they got one thing absolutely wrong in the film. Dabbawallahs just don’t switch dabbas like that. You can change your name but the code given by the dabbawallahs will track you down day after day. The code for my dabba, especially the colour coding on the handle that identifies each recipient uniquely, ensured I got my food every day and the mustard fish that I used very well to woo Barnali.”

Chattopadhyay knows what he’s talking about. In his executive development programme (EDP) – conducted by IIM, Ahmedabad for senior professionals – he chose to take up ‘six sigma’, the holy grail of quality control, as his main research area and studied Mumbai’s dabbawallahs in detail. Six sigma was developed by Motorola in 1981 as a set of quality management methods to improve processes within businesses and organisations. Jack Welch was the one who made it famous by using it to turn around General Electric in 1995.

“A six sigma process is one in which the efficiency is such that 99.9999998% of the services or products that come out of it are free of defects,” explains Chattopadhyay. “The processes adopted by Mumbai’s Dabbawallahs were benchmarked and certified as six sigma by Forbes in 2002. Forget statistics. I am a living proof. In the last 20 years, I have changed at least eight jobs and three houses. Yet I have gotten my lunchbox every day without fail.” That’s some record.

The efficiency and the pinpoint accuracy of the dabbawallahs have garnered international acclaim. The University of California, Berkeley teaches the logistics system of the dabbawallahs as a case study to its management students. Prince Charles has been a long-time fan of the dabbawallahs, and during his visit to the city a couple of years back made it a point to visit the dabbawallahs when they were in full swing at the Churchgate station. Sir Richard Branson is another ardent fan, and if rumours are to be believed he overruled his top branding executives to bring in the dabbawallahs to become part of Virgin Atlantic’s India campaign. The dabbawallahs have also been invited to give lectures at top Indian institutions like the IIMs and the International School of Business (ISB), as well as in international hubs like Dubai.

The system has not changed much in the 123 years since it was conceived in 1880, during the days of the British raj, to feed the booming textile factories of Bombay. The first attempt at bringing together the dabbawallahs into some sort of an organised service took place in 1890 when Mahadeo Havaji Bachche and Ananth Mandra Reddy started a lunch delivery service with about a hundred men. By the 1930s there were attempts to informally unionise the dabbawallahs, and after independence formal dabbawallah unions were established.

Come flooded streets and potholed roads or taxi strikes and terror strikes, the dabbawallahs keep delivering food to the hungry every single day. It’s a system that’s smart without any artificial silicon chip powering it by streaming in binary bits and bytes of logic and algorithms. It’s an unabashedly triumphal human enterprise, almost Luddite in its rejection of technology, with barefoot men, public trains and simple, reusable containers delivering piping hot food to millions in a chaotic and confusing city. Not a single strip of paper is used either, making it an environmentally friendly business. Close to 5,000 dabbawallahs deliver more than 2,00,000 lunch boxesacross Mumbai in a single day. Impressive as it is, that’s not the astounding part. The Harvard Business School (HBS) found out that some of the best managed airlines, for instance, lose about three bags for every 3,000 passengers, and a heavily barcoded, algorithm-driven retail giant like WalMart makes about four mistakes for every million transactions. The dabbawallahs just make one mistake every 15 million deliveries. Now, that’s some efficiency. How do they do it?

Day after Day

Fifty-five-year-old Dhondi Bhau Chorge’s routine for the last 35 years would make the famed Germans known for their clockwork precision proud. He mounts his bare bones bicycle at 8 am in the morning, and rides it to the first house in Andheri where a dabba is already waiting for him. He goes door-to-door and by 10.30 am he has around 25 dabbas hanging from every conceivable, and inconceivable, part of the bicycle. By the time he reaches the Andheri suburban railway station there are several of his fellow dabbawallahs with a similar load already waiting for him. All the lunchboxes are unloaded from the bicycles and carefully arranged on to a wooden rack, called a khokha, and put into the luggage compartments of Churchgate-bound suburban trains. After reaching the station the khokhas are ferried out for sorting and delivery as per their areas.

The delivery system works something like this. Each locality is identified by a code, neighbourhood by an alphabet or alphabet string, destination suburban train station by a number, the building where the dabba is to be delivered, again by an alphabet or alphabet string, and the floor in which the dabba is to be delivered by an alpha-numerical or a numerical symbol. Let’s decode Samyak’s Dan Brownian mishmash of a puzzle for a better understanding. E denotes the specific locality from which the dabba is being picked up, Hanuman Nagar in this case, VLP is the area, Vile Parle, 3 is the destination suburban train station, Churchgate, 10 is the destination area code, Colaba and Cuffe Parade in this case, MT is the name of the building in which dabba is to be delivered, which is Maker Tower, and 12 is the floor in which a hungry Mumbaikar, Samyak in this case, works.

Additionally, the handles of the dabbas are uniquely colour coded to differentiate between people who might work in the same office and came from the same locality. By 1 pm in the afternoon the dabbas are all delivered to their destinations, in time for the lunch hour. It’s the same system that had helped Samyak fall in love and find his life partner. By 2 pm the dabbawallahs are all back, to collect empty lunchboxes and bring it back to the station. By 3 pm the boxes are all sorted out, put into khokhas and loaded into the trains. By 5 pm all the dabbas are delivered back to the house. Chorge’s day finishes exactly at the same house where he picked up his first dabba nine hours back.

Chorge is initially shocked when asked if there are any mistakes while making deliveries. “Such a thing has never happened with me,” he says, recovering quickly with a confidence that can only be born out of experience. “Even if a wrong dabba gets delivered it is quickly brought to our notice bya phone call and the right lunchbox is given.” Chorge and his 35-odd mates are members of the Dabbawallah Union and they can be identified by the compulsory trademark Gandhi caps. Forgetting to wear it can leave them poorer by a Rs 50 fine. Chorghe earns Rs 9,000 per month and there are no additional perks. “As long as I work it is fine,” he says, without any regrets.

Thirty-five-year-old Dattu Kedari carts 35 lunchboxes, which is the maximum that can be carried on a bicycle, from Golibar in Santacruz to Churchgate. But unlike Chorge, he does not visit individual homes. His dabbas are supplied at the station itself by a caterer who prepares special food for diabetics. Kedari ferries these boxes to the Churchgate, where he loads them on to a bicycle parked outside the station, for which he pays a monthly rent of Rs 100. Kedari says mistakes rarely happen. “But when they do we immediately get a call and make sure that we pick up the wrong dabba and deliver the right one,” he says. “I haven’t committed a mistake as yet.” He explains that mistakes rarely happen because the system is so simple, as it is foolproof that a new dabbawallah can pick it up in in a matter of three or four days. Kedari’s work earns him Rs 14,000 per month.

Model behaviour

Dabbawallahs contribute Rs 38 crore a year to the Indian economy. That’s a substantial amount of money. One of the main reasons why the model is successful is its integrated three-tier structure comprising of an executive committee, mukadams (supervisors/labour contractors), and dabbawallahs. Around eight mukadams are pooled together to create a profit centre. It’s a baton and relay system, in which the dabba is the baton and dabbawallahs are the marathon runners. “Such a system allows for tactical flexibility as well as operational efficiency,” says Ashok Mhatarba Dumbre, president, Dabbawallah Foundation. A former dabbawallah himself, Dumbre believes that the key to the continuing success of the dabbawallahs is the intrinsic culture that’s built into the model. “Most of the dabbawallahs are from a region of Maharashtra that’s known for its work ethic,” he says. “This leads to an environment of cooperation and teamwork.” The dabbawallahs see themselves as descendants of soldiers of Shivaji, Maharashtra’s warrior-king. Most of them belong to the Malva caste, and trace their roots to places like Rajgurunagar, Akola, Ambegaon, Junnar and Maashi.

Dumbre admits the dabbawallah system is beset with challenges from fast-food chains and a creeping culture of takeaways and quick service restaurants. “The biggest challenge comes from home and office delivery systems of the fast-food chains,” he says. “The younger generation seems to like it. But we have also seen that once the youngsters settle down into a job and look for a more permanent base they start missing simple home cooked food and eventually turn to a dabbawallah service,” he adds.

To counter the threat from the fast-food culture some dabbawallahs embraced technology and went online with www.mydabbawala.com. The website gives information to potential customers, and also has a feedback mechanism for people to give suggestions for improvement. “We want to take full advantage of IT to improve processes and provide new services like getting pizza or ice-cream delivered to your doorstep,” said Raghunath Medge, president of the Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Trust (NMTBST), which is one of Mumbai’s biggest association of dabbawallahs.

But the dabbawallah service is getting a favourable headwind from catering and food services that offer specialised diets, from those designed for diabetics to those wanting to avoid glutten-based food products. The system is also attractive for many due to its low cost of delivery of each dabba, which works out to as little as Rs 150 per day. “The massive volumes handled by the dabbawallahs, the frugal and efficient system of collection, the use of public transportation infrastructure and low overheads, including negligible use of technology, help the dabbawallahs provide high quality service at low price points,” says Sakharam Sitaram Gavande, secretary, Dabbawallah Foundation. He believes the key to high customer satisfaction levels is the referral system through which dabbawallahs get new business. “Only satisfied customers recommend other clients, and that helps us a lot,” he says.

Samyak and Barnali are two such satisfied customers. “We must have recommended the service to at least 30 people in the last few years,” says Barnali. “I haven’t still heard anyone complain about their dabbawallahs.” Samyak gives it a slightly different spin. “Everyone talks about trains and buses as the city’s lifeline. They surely are, but so are the dabbawallahs. Take them out for a day and I guarantee you the city will come to a halt,” he says with conviction. There may actually be some hidden nuggets of wisdom there. After all, what was it about Napoleon, an army and empty stomachs? Yes, Mumbai’s massive army of professionals, blue-collar workers and daily wagers that run the city keep themselves moving on the food delivered by the humble dabbawallahs. Take them out and the city may as well come to a grinding halt.



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