Prince Charles is not the first person to show an
interest in the Dabbawalaof Mumbai. In fact,
the first time they actually shot to international fame was when his
compatriots at the BBC did a documentary on them way back in the late 70s.
So what makes the Dabbawalaso unique? And how do they work?
At the simplest, the Dabbawaladeliver
home-cooked meals to individuals at their workplaces and return empty tiffin
boxes to homes and, in some cases, caterers.
Housewives even send notes to their hubbies in
At each station, the boxes are once more sorted for
localities and offices and taken there by handcarts or sometimes carried by
individuals. "We carry up to 35 kg for distances of a couple of
kilometers," points out Medge.
The whole process then starts again in the reverse. The boxes are picked up from the offices, taken to the nearest station and sorted for their journey home.
Forbes magazine gave this service its
highest quality rating of Sigma 6, which means that per million
transactions, there is just an error of one.
"Every day, we deliver 175,000 to 200,000 lunch boxes," said Medge. "We use colours and code markings to ensure faultless delivery."
These codes would baffle a cryptographer! But they
make perfect sense to the Dabbawala. The
codes and colours indicate the place from where a dabba is collected;
the station where it must be unloaded and the office it is to be delivered.
The men who form part of the organisation are not
employees. "If you have employees, then you have unions and strikes," said
Medge, revealing his deep business acumen. "We are all shareholders in the
Trust and we thus share in the earnings."
What makes the Dabbawalaan extremely tight-knit group is that they all hail from the same region, Pune district in Maharashtra. "We all come from the region east of the Sahyadri [Western Ghats], and everyone who joins us is known to us," said Medge.
"If an outsider does join in, we initially employ
him on a fixed salary, and if in a couple of years he wins our trust, we may
make him a shareholder," added Medge.
"In fact, today is Prabhodini Ekadashi, when yatras (pilgrimages) to Pandharpur are made. So all our members will be fasting today," Medge explained.
Yet, while Vithoba is their presiding deity, their
success is linked to the Mumbai suburban train network. On those odd days
when the railways ground to a halt, the dabbas are not delivered.
Why have they not tried a similar service in other
The dabbawallah service began way back in 1890, when Mumbai was a much smaller city. "At that time, migration of workers to the city had just begun and they wanted home-made food at their workplaces. Mumbai is a city with people from all over India, but the South Indians want their food, while the Gujaratis want their food. Our service began to fill this growing need," said Medge.
Today, the service delivers not just homemade food but also picks up food from caterers and delivers them to offices. But Medge said that food from caterers are still a small segment of the total operation. "Most people want to eat homemade food in the offices," he said.
As long as the Dabbawalaservice is there, Mumbaikars alone in the world would have the option of eating homemade food in office without the bother of having to carry a cumbersome lunchbox.