A dabbawala (one who carries the box, see Etymology), sometimes spelled dabbawalla or dabbawallah, is a person in the Indian city of Mumbai whose job is to carry and deliver freshly made food from home in lunch boxes to office workers. Tiffin is an old-fashioned English word for a light lunch, and sometimes for the box it is carried in. Dabbawalas are sometimes called tiffin-wallas. For the efficiency of their supply chain it has been claimed that this virtually achieves a Six Sigma performance rating (i.e. 99.9999% of deliveries are made without error).
Though the work sounds simple, it is actually a highly specialized trade that is over a century old and which has become integral to Mumbai’s culture.
The dabbawala originated when India was under British rule: many British people who came to the colony disliked the local food, so a service was set up to bring lunch to them in their workplace straight from their home. Nowadays, Indian businessmen are the main customers for the dabbawalas, and the service often includes cooking as well as delivery.
The word “Dabbawala” can be translated as “box-carrier” or “lunchpail-man”. In Hindi, “dabba” means a box (usually a cylindrical aluminium container), while “wala” means someone in a trade involving the object mentioned in the preceding term, e.g. punkhawala (fan operator).
At 19,373 persons per square kilometer, Mumbai is India’s most densely populated city with a huge flow of traffic. Because of this, lengthy commutes to workplaces are common, with many workers travelling by train.
Instead of going home for lunch or paying for a meal in a café, many office workers have a cooked meal sent from home or by a caterer. The meal is delivered in lunch boxes which are later collected and re-sent the next day. This is usually done for a monthly fee. The meal is cooked in the morning and sent in lunch boxes carried by dabbawalas, who have a complex association and hierarchy across the city.
A collecting dabbawala, usually on a bicycle, collects dabbas from homes or, more often, from the dabba makers (who actually cook the food). The dabbas have some sort of distinguishing mark on them, such as a colour or symbol.
The dabbawala then takes them to a designated sorting place, where he and other collecting dabbawalas sort (and sometimes bundle) the lunch boxes into groups. The grouped boxes are put in the coaches of trains, with markings to identify the destination of the box (usually there is a designated car for the boxes). The markings include the rail station to unload the boxes and the building address where the box has to be delivered.
At each station, boxes are handed over to a local dabbawala, who delivers them. The empty boxes, after lunch, are again collected and sent back to the respective houses.
Everyone who works within this system is treated as an equal. Regardless of a dabbawala’s function, everyone gets paid about two to four thousand rupees per month (around 25-50 British pounds or 40-80 US dollars).
More than 175,000 or 200,000 lunches get moved every day by an estimated 4,500 to 5,000 dabbawalas, all with an extremely small nominal fee and with utmost punctuality. According to a recent survey, there is only one mistake in every 6,000,000 deliveries. The American business magazine Forbes gave a Six Sigma performance rating for the precision of dabbawalas.
The BBC has produced a documentary on dabbawalas, and Prince Charles, during his visit to India, visited them (he had to fit in with their schedule, since their timing was too precise to permit any flexibility). Owing to the tremendous publicity, some of the dabbawalas were invited to give guest lectures in top business schools of India, which is very unusual. Most remarkably, the success of the dabbawala trade has involved no modern high technology. The main reason for their popularity could be the Indian people’s aversion to fast food outlets and their love of home-made food.
Low-tech and lean
Although the service remains essentially low-tech, with the barefoot delivery boys as the prime movers, the dabbawalas have started to embrace technology, and now allow booking for delivery through SMS. A web site, mydabbawala.com, has also been added to allow for on-line booking, in order to keep up with the times. An on-line poll on the web site ensures that customer feedback is given pride of place. The success of the system depends on teamwork and time management that would be the envy of a modern manager. Such is the dedication and commitment of the barely literate and barefoot delivery boys (there are only a few delivery women) who form links in the extensive delivery chain, that there is no system of documentation at all. A simple colour coding system doubles as an ID system for the destination and recipient. There are no elaborate layers of management either — just three layers. Each dabbawala is also required to contribute a minimum capital in kind, in the shape of two bicycles, a wooden crate for the tiffins, white cotton kurta-pyjamas, and the white trademark Gandhi topi (cap). The return on capital is ensured by monthly division of the earnings of each unit.
The service is uninterrupted even on the days of extreme weather, such as Mumbai’s characteristic monsoons. The local dabbawalas at the receiving and the sending ends are known to the customers personally, so that there is no question of lack of trust. Also, they are well accustomed to the local areas they cater to, which allows them to access any destination with ease. Occasionally, people communicate between home and work by putting messages inside the boxes. However, this was usually before the accessibility of telecommunications.
- Dabbawalla services are popular with the Indian IT developer community in Silicon Valley, California, USA .
One of the two protagonists in Salman Rushdie’s controversial novel The Satanic Verses, Gibreel Farishta, was born as Ismail Najmuddin to a dabbawallah. In the novel, Farishta joins his father, delivering lunches all over Bombay (Mumbai) at the age of 10, until he is taken off the streets and becomes a movie star.
Dabbawalas feature as an alibi in the Inspector Ghote novel Dead on Time.