About 5,000 people deliver over 200,000 meals daily in offices of Mumbai, the commercial capital of India. What astonishes major logistics firms and e-commerce giants is their world-class service without any technical support.
These food delivery men, known as dabbawalas meaning people who deliver food, have been managing the 130-year-old food delivery system for several generations without break. Dabba in local language means a tiffin box. The dabbawalas are mainly semi-literate people and are earning about $260 per month.
Most of the workers are coming from the same or adjoining regions like Pune and Satara districts near Mumbai. They have a body namely Mumbai Dabbawala Association.
On a daily basis, they travel about 60-70 km to one side for delivering the food to their customers. The dabbawallas normally work about 9 hours a day with their routine commencing at around 9 am.
Clad in a mainly white dress and a traditional Gandhi cap, each dabbawala delivers up to 20 lunch boxes and collects them on return. The lunch boxes will be returned to the houses of their customers by evening. The services are not available on common holidays. For each tiffin box, they charge between $11 and $14 per month from the customers. They collect the money from the customers and distribute the earnings equally among themselves at the month-end.
The dabbawalas’ food delivery service has an estimated annual turnover of about $70 million, according to a recent news report in a local daily.
The daily delivery of food at distance offices in the city is not an easy task. It is a race against time and weather besides wading through the heavy rush of the city. More than anything, the dabbawalas believe that “Anna daan maha daan” (Providing food is the best charity).
The dabbawalas claim that they provide healthy and home-cooked food straight away from the homes of their customers. They also collect the food from the customers’ regular eateries and other home kitchens.
Uniform size of tiffin box
The dabbawalas lay stress on the uniformity of the size and shape of the stainless steel tiffin box or dabba. The main reason they insist on the uniform shape is the convenience to carry them to the destinations. The dabbas are of cylindrical shape. They will not accept the food containers which are bigger in size as such tiffin boxes upset the order of their crates in which they carry food. If the customer wants their own tiffin boxes, they have to pay additional charges.
The dabbas are packed quickly onto crates of standard size and this help efficiently load them onto trains.
The dabbawalas follow strict discipline and follow certain rules set by them for maintaining efficiency in service.
One instance is: They will not have their food until they finish their service for the day, which will normally be over by 1 pm.
The penalty will be slapped on errant workers and will be dismissed from the association for repeated mistakes and negligence.
Color coding identification
The tiffin carriers carry certain color codes that guide the workers to reach the meals the right customer. The chance of error in the delivery system is said to be a negligible percentage only.
According to them, it was simple color-coding earlier but after the expansion of the transport system of the city (three railway lines – Harbor Line, Central Line, and Western Line – connect Mumbai with its suburban areas besides metro rail), the color-coding also evolved into alphanumeric characters.
Despite being semi-literate people, they achieved high-level performance because of their managerial skills using minimum operational cost. They use the cheapest available transportation means – the suburban trains, bicycles, and handcarts – to transport and deliver the homemade food from the houses of their regular customers to their respective offices in Mumbai. So, their mode of transportation is totally eco-friendly as well.
The dabbawalas say that they are very humble people and yet to learn any theories or they have not studied any operational strategy from any institution. Still, they are characterized as Management Gurus as they share the experiences that they obtained from the legacy since 1890.
The dabbawalas adhere to certain management principles in each and every step in their delivery system. They point out that their functioning is based on four basic pillars namely efficiency, time management, coordination, and culture which help them work as one group without any problems.
An academic subject
The dabbawalas are not people who just deliver food to their customers daily to earn their livelihood. For many, they are an academic subject too. They happened to be the subject of several studies for their managerial efficiency and cost-effective delivery system by top firms as well as institutions in the world including the Harvard School of Business.
In a study, the Harvard School of Business characterized them as entrepreneurs who directly deal with their customers and add new ones.
They also give tips on service efficiency to local and foreign companies like Reliance, Amazon, and FedEx besides British businessmen Richard Branson.
They draw the attention of the VIPs who visit the city. During his visit to Mumbai in 2003, Prince Charles of England hailed the functioning style of the dabbawalas. What more, two office-bearers of the dabbawalas organization got an invitation to the wedding of the prince with Camilla Parker-Bowles in April 2005.
They are also invited by institutions to deliver lectures on management lessons locally and even outside the country.
The food delivery system of Mumbai is traced back to 1890. It is believed to have begun when a Parsi banker wanted to have homemade food in his office as he did not want to eat from local eateries or restaurants. He reportedly entrusted the task upon a person who turned out to be the first dabbawala of the current system.
This idea gained currency and more people came up with the demand to deliver home-cooked food in their offices in Mumbai.
However, it developed into an organized team when a local man, Mahadeo Havaji Bachche, found a huge opportunity in this segment. He formed a group of about 100 dabbawalas to give it a proper organizational structure of the present form.
As the city expanded, the army of the food delivery men also increased and it is an association of about 5,000 now.
It may be noted that nobody else other than the dabbawalas can provide such a low-cost but top class service in the city.
Despite the coming of online food delivery platforms like Swiggy, Zomato and Uber Eats, they could make little impact on the business of the dabbawalas.
Their service inspired a Bollywood movie also. The blockbuster Bollywood film The Lunchbox released in 2013 is based on the dabbawala service – a wrong delivery of tiffin boxes to hero and heroine ends up in a love affair between them. The dabbawalas, who claim their service an error-free one, had objected to this and the producer of the movie had to apologize.
COVID-19 made life uncertain
Following the outbreak of COVID-19, the national government declared total lockdown in March in India. The dabbawalas had suspended their services as all the offices in Mumbai had closed due to the pandemic. This directly affected the livelihood of the dabbawalas, who started moving to their native places.
Though the Indian government started relaxing the lockdown norms from June in phases allowing offices to operate with a part of their staff, this will not help dabbawalas resume their service as it was in the pre-COVID-19 time.
Now, they are waiting for normalcy to return for reviving their activities, said Ulhas Muke, Chairman, Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust, the arm of the dabbawalas body.
As the income from their delivery is not sufficient to meet their ends, the dabbawalas are planning to launch their courier service for an additional income once the COVID-19-created crisis is over.
A Dabbawala app
The dabbawalas are not against technology. They are well aware of the advancement of technology and the changes that made in the life of the people.
The dabbawalas have plans to launch a user friendly mobile app to connect the customers with them to provide the get best of their services without any interruption.