a dabbawala's cycle full of lunchboxes

Mumbai’s Dabbawalas: A Vast Network of Lunchbox Delivery Men

In Hindi, a dabbawala refers to a person who carries a dabba or container. The term, however, signifies so much more than its literal meaning. Especially in India’s most populous city, Mumbai, where the word is part of common parlance. It represents an entire community of people who work in a one-of-a-kind system where their job is to deliver lunchboxes.

Let’s delve into the world of Mumbai’s dabbawalas, understand them and their internationally accredited system of delivery.

Who are Dabbawalas?

dabbawalas carrying a crate of lunchboxes
Dabbawalas at work. Image Credit: Works that Work

The dabbawalas of Mumbai are lunchbox porters who deliver freshly cooked homemade lunches from customers’ homes to their offices. The term also refers to the complex yet highly efficient delivery system that the porters follow to collect, sort and deliver lunchboxes on time, without error. Once lunchtime is over, the boxes are returned to their houses. It is a reliable and low-cost way to receive hot home-cooked lunches within Mumbai.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were around 5,000 dabbawalas who would provide their services to nearly 200,000 people every day.

Why do Mumbaikars take the services of Dabbawalas?

In Mumbai, eating outside every day is costly and, therefore, an unnecessary expense. The cafeterias within office buildings either offer the same kind of food or very poor quality food. Thus, it is more affordable and healthier to eat home-cooked meals, which is also what the working professionals of Mumbai prefer.

Home-cooked meals are made in a hygienic setting, with locally available ingredients, they’re delicious, hearty and made with love. A typical homemade meal will have a serving of rice, chapatti, daal or lentil soup, several side dishes made with vegetables, salad and occasionally even dessert. Such a balanced meal will provide the required nutrition and energy to get through the rest of the working day.

a disassembled tiffin box
Dabba with delicious homemade food unpacked in the office. Image Credit: The Times UK

These lunches are usually prepared at home by the wives of the working professionals. In traditional Indian society, it is women who stay at home and perform their duties as housewives. One of their duties is to prepare meals for their husbands throughout the day.

If their husbands were to carry their lunch with them, they would need to rush even more than they already do to make breakfast in the morning. The food items in the lunchbox wouldn’t be so diverse. Therefore, it would omit many of the food groups necessary in a balanced full-course meal. Plus, the food would get cold by lunchtime in the office. Besides, many of the offices may or may not have heating amenities.

With the dabbawala system, women find it more convenient to prepare and pack lunches as they get more time on their hands after the morning rush hours. The arrival of the dabbawala to collect the lunchbox is also timed perfectly, as the food remains hot when it reaches the office just before lunchtime.

What do working women do?

The number of women in the workforce is growing every day. As such, women do not have the time to cook for themselves or the family. So, in that case, they contact local eateries and cafeterias in the neighbourhood that serve fresh home-style food. They ask them to deliver their lunches to their offices by collaborating with dabbawalas. Unmarried, widowed men, single men do not know how to cook and families where both men and women work also opt for this service.

How did the Dabbawala Service begin?

Dabbawalas entering a train
Dabbawalas entering a train. Image Credit: Satyaki Ghosh via BBC

The dabbawala services have been in operation since 1890. It all began with an unknown Parsi man and a man named Mahadeo Havaji Bachche. Mahadeo Havaji Bachche had come to Mumbai from Pune and, like many migrants from other parts of Maharashtra in the city, he was also waiting to be hired for any job he could find. One day, a Parsi banker realized he had left his lunchbox at home on the way to work. He then hired Mahadeo Havaji Bachche to go and collect his lunchbox from his house and bring it to his office. He was the first dabbawala.

At the time, the British colonizers had well established themselves in India. They set up the railway system, built roads and government offices, etc. The officers at these establishments had to find food to eat during their shifts. So, the Parsi women in Mumbai opened a canteen and cooked whatever food that the people working at these offices wanted. They would ask the workers on the roads waiting for jobs to deliver their food to the offices in exchange for payment.

Mahadeo Havaji Bachche realized there was a demand for delivering food to those working in offices. So from there, he began a tiffin delivery service, initially with just 100 men. The idea was a success. Over time, more and more people engaged dabbawalas to deliver lunches to offices and today, it is an inevitable part of Mumbai’s culture.

How do the Dabbawalas operate?

portrait of Mahadeo Havaji Bachche
Mahadeo Havaji Bachche, the first dabbawala. Image Credit: Meena Kadri via Flickr

If it wasn’t emphasized earlier, the dabbawalas are known for their efficiency thanks to their successful delivery system. They not only manage to deliver hot lunches on time, but they also manage to do so without error. In fact, the dabbawalas have received the six sigma certificate, meaning that there is only 1 error in every 6 million deliveries.

Their complex system and the massive army of 5000 dabbawalas rely on the Mumbai Suburban Railway network to carry out their operation. It is in fact, because of the frequent railway stations and well-connected railway lines reaching all corners of the city, that the dabbawalas have been so successful only in Mumbai. They truly make as much use of the railway as possible. It is especially effective when it comes to delivering lunches over a long distance. The railway isn’t the only mode of transport that they use. They also use the humble bicycle and handcart for shorter distances. Trains and cycles prove to be quicker than cars and motorbikes, which are always stuck in traffic. They are also more environment-friendly modes of transportation.

The Journey of a Lunchbox

The journey of the dabbawala begins at the customer’s house. A designated dabbawala will go and collect the packed lunchbox from the customer’s home then. Many dabbawalas are assigned to collect the boxes from houses in the locality. Once they’ve completed the collection, they’ll meet at the nearest railway station in that area.

Along the way, the dabba is handed to several other dabbawalas in their complex yet efficient system.

dabbawala carrying lunchboxes on his bicycle
Dabbawala transporting the lunchboxes on his bicycle. Image Credit: Economic Times

There, the dabbas are sorted and placed in a crate based on the codes marking the intended destination. These crates are then loaded onto the train and sent off to the railway station closest to the destination. Upon their arrival at the station, the boxes are sorted according to the area, street, building, etc. After that, the boxes are handed over to another dabbawala, who transports them on their bicycles, wooden handcarts or simply carries them in their hand and walks over to the office, right before lunch.

After lunchtime, the dabbas are returned to the customer’s house in the same way.

Dabbawala Codes

Most dabbawalas are semi-literate people who come to Mumbai from rural areas in hopes of a better job and a better quality of life. They are often unskilled and possess limited literacy as they haven’t had the chance to receive proper education due to financial constraints.

As a result, many do not necessarily know how to read or write properly or use technological devices. As complicated as their system may seem, one would expect the use of at least basic devices like mobile phones. However, the dabbawala system fascinatingly does not make use of any technological devices.

colourful codes on lunchboxes
Coloured codes on lunchboxes. Image Credit: Share America

Instead, they use a set of colourful alphanumeric codes containing a few English or Marathi alphabets, numbers, symbols such as the plus or minus, etc. In total, there are 4 codes marked on each lunchbox. They communicate which dabbawala is responsible for collecting lunchboxes on which route; which station the lunchbox should reach, the dabbawala responsible for picking the box from the station; the address of the building and the exact floor number where the lunchbox has to reach.

The dabbawalas have to process a lot of information in a short time with whatever limited literacy they have. These codes prove extremely useful and they are easily comprehensible to the dabbawalas.

How Dabbawalas Manage to Stay Efficient

The dabbawalas work in 200 teams of 25 men, who position themselves in various areas and railway stations to perform their operation. These small groups are responsible for one locality and they carry out their task as soon as they’re handed the lunchboxes. Also, in these groups, there is at least one supervisor or muqaddam. This person has worked as a dabbawala for over 10 years. The muqaddam looks over the collection of lunchboxes, ensures that boxes have the right codes, and oversees sorting, loading and unloading of the lunchboxes and handles any issues along the way.

The Dabbawalas also wear a distinct attire that makes them easy to identify in the chaos of railway stations. Their uniform comprises either a full-length white shirt or white kurta, white pajama for the bottom and an iconic white Gandhi cap.

dabbawalas in their iconic white uniform
Dabbawalas in uniform. Image Credit: Grazia

Each task has a fixed time limit, which they stick to religiously. For example, they must load the wooden crates full of lunchboxes onto a train within 20-40 seconds, depending on the nature of the station. If it is a major station, they take 40 seconds, whereas at a smaller station they take 20 seconds. If for any reason, a dabbawala is not able to load his crate, the teams immediately engage in finding alternate methods to get the lunchboxes delivered.

This allows maximum efficiency and accuracy in a chaotic setting like the railway station, where the rush hour never ends. This aspect along with the use of quicker and inexpensive modes of transport also helps lower costs for customers. Dabbawala customers only have to pay around 800 rupees, or USD 11 a month, for daily services. The prices may differ depending on locality, the distance between home and office and other such factors.

Responsibilities of the Customer

To ensure their efficiency, the customer or the person preparing and packing the food also has an important role to play. They must cooperate with the dabbawalas and follow some standards.

For instance, the lunchbox must be packed and ready to be handed over to the dabbawala before he comes to collect it. The tardiness of the customer would disrupt the whole delivery process and the dabbawala would be blamed for it instead of the customer. The team of dabbawalas would have to find an alternate way to deliver the lunchbox on time.

stainless stell lunchbox dabba
Standard Indian stainless steel dabba or lunchbox. Image Credit: Sites Google

Customers are also encouraged to use the standard dabba to pack lunches. A dabba means container but, in Mumbai, it specifically refers to a cylindrical lunch box made of stainless steel. It is around 15cm in diameter and 30cm in height and has several compartments that act like bowls when they’re disassembled. If there is an odd-shaped or odd-sized lunchbox, extra charges are payable. If the boxes are too unusual, they aren’t accepted at all. The uniform shape and size of the lunchboxes are loaded properly and quickly into the crates.

Customers also provide a bag for carrying the dabbas. The bag is usually made of fabric and its shape, colours and designs help the dabbawalas identify the owner of the lunchbox.

Dabbawalas during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Mumbai has witnessed and continues to witness events that have often threatened the livelihood of the dabbawalas. Every year, it experiences heavy rainfall during the monsoon season between June and September, because of which, there is frequent flooding. Mumbai, over the years, has also been the centre of wars, terrorist attacks and riots, but none have affected the livelihood of the dabbawalas as the COVID-19 pandemic has.

Local trains were discontinued during the many lockdowns in the country. And when they did start operating, the railways used a QR code system to ultimately limit the number of passengers on trains. This affected the dabbawalas’ operations as many don’t possess smartphones, let alone know how to work with a QR code.

Additionally, most people are now working from their homes, which means dabbawalas are no longer required to deliver lunches to offices. The larger businesses and corporations used to bring them the most income but, now they are either shut or there’s limited staff coming into the offices.

Furthermore, sometime after the initial lockdowns were lifted, the dabbawalas saw that many of their bicycles had rusted away and were impossible to use. Many of them have to spend their own money to replace them.

With their job opportunities and incomes at their lowest and the uncertainty of the situation, many are out of work. As a result, there are presently around 200 to 300 men working out of a force of 5,000 dabbawalas. The remaining dabbawalas at present, are mostly delivered to essential workers in Mumbai, such as doctors and government officials.

Ways to Survive

Many have returned to their ancestral villages to work in the agricultural sector. Others in the community are trying to survive in the city by finding ways to stay employed.

Their limited levels of literacy discourage them from working in places that require advanced skills. So they are finding petty jobs as security guards, handymen, labourers until they can deliver lunchboxes once again.

Alternatively, the dabbawalas are now contemplating providing new services. They are planning not only to deliver lunches but to cook them as well in central kitchens.

dabbawala on a bike delivering fast food
Dabbawala delivering fast food, the traditional way. Image Credit: The Hindu

On the other hand, some restaurants are now collaborating with dabbawalas to deliver their foods to people to keep this 131-year-old profession alive. During the pandemic and even before that, the growing middle-class population of India developed a taste for fast food. This has become even more convenient with online food delivery services such as Swiggy, Zomato, Deliveroo and Uber Eats.

So now, instead of using these services, restaurants are engaging the dabbawalas. They are even training them to use mobile devices. Some of them have begun delivering fast food instead of homemade meals until they can once again resume their operations.

Dabbawalas: An Inevitable part of Mumbai

The dabbawalas are evidently a part of Mumbai’s social and cultural fabric, which has allowed many people to enjoy hearty home-cooked meals for lunch in their offices. Their eco-friendly delivery system ensures minimal wastage and carbon emissions as well.

The system has survived for over a century now because it has adapted to the changes of Mumbai city. As the landscape changes and as more people make Mumbai their home, the dabbawalas also redesign their systems to accommodate these changes.

Now, the livelihoods of the dabbawalas are under threat, but they’ve survived through some of the worst crises. Hoping they survive this too.

Please do not hesitate to share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Roncaglia, S., 2013. Bombay-Mumbai and the Dabbawalas: Origin and Development of a Parallel Economy. Feeding the City: Work and Food Culture of the Mumbai Dabbawalas. Cambridge: ‎ Open Book Publishers, pp. 12-13.

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