Top 10 Reason For Using Dabbawalas Services                                                                                                                                                                                     

 Meaning Of Dabbawala

A dabbawala, (Hindi: dabba - (Lunch) Box, wala - an appelation for One who carries) sometimes spelled dabbawalla or dabbawallah, is a person in Mumbai (Bombay), India, whose job is carrying and delivering 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.

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 didn't like the local food, so a service was set up to bring lunch to these people in their workplace straight from their home. Nowadays, Indian businessmen are the main customers for the dabbawalas, and the service 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 an cylindrical aluminium container), while "wala" means someone in a trade involving the preceding term.




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 traveling by train.

Instead of going home for lunch or paying for a meal in a café, many office workers have a cooked meal sent by a caterer who delivers it to them as well, essentially cooking and delivering the meal in lunch boxes and then having the lunch boxes 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 bicycle, collects dabbas from homes or, more often, from the dabba makers (who actually cook the food). The dabbas have some sort of distingushing mark on them, such as a color or symbol (most dabbawalas are illiterate).

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.



Economic analysis

Everyone who works within this system is treated as an equal. Regardless of a dabbawala's function, everyone gets paid about 2-4,000 rupees per month (around 25-50 British pounds).

More than 175,000-200,000 lunches get moved every day by an estimated 4,500-5,000 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 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.



Uninterrupted services

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 on chits inside the boxes. Of course, this was before the telecommunications revolution.



Outside Mumbai

In general, the Chinese prefer hot meals over cold ones. From the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War and the upcoming civil war, a great number of people migrated from China to Hong Kong. Tiffin carriers similar to their Mumbai conterparts began to emerge. This kind of business existed until the 1970s when people were richer. These tiffin boxes were coloured with flowers and other devices to be delivered to the factory workers.

In many other Asian countries, office workers and school children also bring their own lunch boxes. However, without such a delivery system, a company or a school may install heaters to reheat the lunch boxes. A large steam heater may reheat hundreds or even more lunch boxes at a time. A worker or a student also has to bring home his/her lunch box. As more and more people choose to visit a restaurant or cafeteria, the reheating service is now in decline.

Unlike microwave oven reheating which is quick and lower in temperature, foods slowly reheated by steam for a couple of hours are usually not as tasty as freshly made ones. Green leaf vegetables, a vital ingredient of Chinese cuisine, do not survive reheating well. Since a nuclear family's working housewife may prepare the next day's lunch at dinner, the boxed lunch, placed in a refrigerator over night, may contain dishes that are very similar to that family's last meal. Therefore, people developed special cooking tips to make their boxed lunch tasty after reheating.



In Literature

One of the two protagonists in Salman Rushdie's controversial novel Satanic Verses, Gibreel Farishta, was born as Ismail Najmuddin to a Dabbawallah. In the novel, Farishta joins his father delivering lunches all over Bombay at the age of 10 till he is taken off the streets and becomes a movie star.




  • Karkaria, Bachi. "The Dabba Connection." [1]
  • Blue Peter episode on Monday 27 September, 2004 (summer expedition report)
  • Meeting with Prince Charles [2]