Rohidas Sawant has been cycling through the lanes of Mumbai for the past 30 years, come rain or shine, collecting stacks of steel lunchboxes, known as tiffin carriers or dabbas, filled with steaming hot curries, dal, rice, and rotis from people’s front doors.
After completing his rounds, he parks his bike at the railway station, assists in loading the tiffin carriers into a packed suburban train, and then climbs aboard himself to assist with their synchronised loading and unloading before passing the baton to a local dabbawalla (lunchbox deliverer) who rushes the meals from office to office in time for lunch.By the evening, the empty dabbas are collected and returned to their original location, completing the cycle.
Mumbai’s dabbawallas, who wear white uniforms and wear Gandhi caps, are known for their low-tech but dependable lunchbox delivery network in India’s financial capital. Traditionally male, a few women have begun to enter their ranks in recent years.
Their delivery skills are so remarkable that British billionaire Richard Branson officially traveled with them once to better understand their activities, and after meeting them in 2003, Prince Charles, the UK’s heir apparent, invited them to his wedding with Camilla. They were also the subject of a Harvard Business School report that looked at what foreign businesses could benefit from their “service excellence” model.
It all started more than 130 years ago, when Mumbai had few, if any, public eateries but was home to a growing number of economic migrants from various parts of the world, each with a unique set of tastes and dietary requirements. The first dabbawalla was said to have been hired by a Parsee banker who wanted a home-cooked meal delivered to his office. At first, the concept was unstructured and unorganized, but it quickly gained traction.
In 1890, Mahadeo Havaji Bachche established Mumbai’s first formal lunch delivery service with around 100 men, many of whom were from villages in the Sahyadri hills near Pune and had little or no formal education.By 1956, the “tiffin box suppliers” had formed a charitable trust in their name. An organization was also created to protect their rights, avoid mistreatment, and resolve any disputes or legal issues that arose.
In Mumbai today, there are around 5,000 dabbawallas who, before the coronavirus pandemic, will each earn about 10,000 rupees (S$179.30) per month ensuring that the city’s 200,000 or so office workers eat on time every day – an impressive feat, particularly given that many of them cannot read and rely on color-coding to identify the dabbas and their destinations.In the midst of the pandemic, however, lockdowns, a huge rise in remote working, and restrictions on local trains have combined to put their livelihoods in jeopardy, prompting the dabbawallas to appeal to the government for financial assistance.
An online fundraiser established to assist them raised over two million rupees (US$26,750).
“Out of the network of almost 5,000 dabbawallas, only about five per cent are working in the pandemic,” said Mumbai Dabbawala Association President Raghunath Medge.
“Many have taken up odd jobs like delivering newspapers to feed their families. For the first time in decades, our livelihood has come to a standstill. Many of them have retreated to their villages, to eke out a living by working on the fields. Some of them have started delivering vegetables.”Medge, who has been serving dabbas since 1980, said he finds great joy in his work because “feeding people is a service to god.”
Since “most people work in the business district of South Mumbai and live up to 70 kilometers away,” he credits “Mumbai’s peculiar geography” for popularizing the service, which costs clients about 1,200 rupees (US$16) for a month’s worth of deliveries.
Even though a fortunate few dabbawallas, including Jaisingh Phapale, have been able to find work delivering lunches to businesses and families despite the pandemic, he is concerned about the future. “There aren’t many dabbawallas left in Mumbai now,” he said.
“Organisations like the Rotary and Lions Clubs and some big corporations have helped us in a small way with food grains and cash donations, but it’s not enough. Our decades-old profession is at stake.”
Vilasji Shinde, a dabbawalla for 22 years, now delivers milk around the city’s suburbs. “It’s a difficult time around the world, but I somehow manage to look after my family and pay the rent,” he said.
“Some of the other dabbawallas are sustaining themselves working as housekeepers or as gardeners, some drive rickshaws and many others have returned to their villages. [But] what will I do outside Mumbai? This is my life.”
Pawan Aggarwal, an educator and motivational speaker based in Mumbai, spent nine years researching the logistics and supply chain management of dabbawallas for his PhD and discovered that what set them apart was their dedication, enthusiasm, and emphasis on time management and customer satisfaction.
“It’s a case of ordinary people doing an extraordinary task,” he said. “Over the years many things have changed and affected their business even before the pandemic, like the advent of food delivery apps like Swiggy and Zomato, and the food preferences of the Indian youth for whom home cooked meals are not a priority any more.”
“The future is uncertain, and we are not sure whether the dabbawalla business that filled the bellies of Mumbai will resume after the pandemic. Only time will tell,” Dr Aggarwal added.
Source: South China Morning Post