Mumbai's tiffin carriers deliver
New Delhi- Some 5,000 semi-literate lunch-box
carriers, called "dabbawalas" have built up a
near-perfect record of service over the past 120
years, delivering home-cooked food to more than
200,000 people in the western Indian city
Mumbai. During that colourful history, they have
been courted by British royalty, lectured
Microsoft management, and have become a case
study for major business schools, including
The dabbawalas, part of the The Mumbai Tiffin
Box Suppliers Association (MTBSA), claim that
during the organization's 120 years of
operation, they have made just one error in 16
That one acknowledged mistake took place in
2005, when Mumbai was lashed by heavy rains and
floods and a rookie dabbawala could not make one
of his deliveries.
It's an error rate which surpasses the benchmark
that blue-chip telecom and IT companies like
Motorola, Genpact, Wipro, Infosys and IBM have
set for their products, the president of the
MTBSA, Raghunath Medage, told Deutsche
The out-of-the-box solutions of dabbawalas have
captivated Britain's Prince Charles, who invited
two of them to his wedding with Camila Parker
Bowles. They have also taught Virgin Atlantic
supremo Sir Richard Branson a thing or two about
service with a smile.
And starting this year, their business style
will be studied across India by high school
Dabbawalas are in textbooks because a day in
their life starts with braving Mumbai's heat,
humidity and peak-hour traffic, reaching the
homes of students, entrepreneurs of small
businesses, managers, especially bank staff, and
This wide assortment of customers prefers to buy
their tiffin, or mid-day meal, from dabbawalas
for reasons of economy, hygiene, caste and
dietary restrictions, as well as that
Each day, between 8:30-9 am, the dabbawalas
collect food in dabbas (lunch-boxes), each of
which is color-coded to identify its owner and
Then the dabbawala puts all the dabbas onto a
wooden crate, which he lugs on his head or uses
a pushcart, moving fast using a combination of
bicycle, train and his two feet to reach his
At various intermediary stations, dabbas are
hauled onto platforms from exclusive trains and
bogies and sorted for distribution.
At Mumbai's downtown stations, the last link in
the chain, a final relay of dabbawalas fans out
to take the dabbas to their respective owners.
Dabbawalas, each on an average catering to about
35 customers every day, collect, deliver, and
return 200,000 two-kilogram lunch-boxes daily in
Mumbai. They earn the equivalent of between 7.50
and 8.70 US dollars per month from each of their
The money they earn goes into a cooperative
pool, from which they are paid an average
monthly salary of 124-148 dollars.
MTBSA takes in about 9 million dollars annually,
much of which is used by the co-operative to
provide low-cost loans to the carriers and for
What's most amazing about their logistics is
that they achieve very high quality with zero
documentation, no sophisticated technology for
tracking the movement of the lunch boxes and no
motor vehicle for transport, other than the
suburban train service, pushcarts and bicycles.
Dabbawalas have been invited to deliver lectures
to organizations like Accenture, the Reserve
Bank of India, the Confederation Of Indian
Industries (CII), and to the cream of India's
management and engineering institutes.
Shantanu Moitra, a consultant with
Pricewaterhouse Coopers, said the the secret to
the dabbawalas' success is the combination of
"low-cost suburban train service that covers the
entire Mumbai city, a close-knit family of
dabbawalas from the same sect, competitive
collaboration between groups, entrepreneurship,
technical efficiency in logistics management,
and a flat oraginasational structure."
To create a feeling of ownership, each dabbawala
has to bring some capital with him - including
two bicycles (100 dollars), a wooden crate for
the lunch-boxes (50 dollars), at least one set
of white cotton loose shirt and pants (15
dollars), and the trademark white Gandhi hat
Hiring is selective because dabbawalas consider
themselves to be the descendants of soldiers of
the legendary 17th century Maharashtrian
warrior-king Shivaji, who fought the British
empire in pre-Independence India. They are hired
from within a select Varkari sect in the western
Indian state Maharashtra.
"We believe in employing people from our own
community. So whenever there is a vacancy,
elders recommend a relative from their village,"
said Madhba, a dabbawala from Maharashtra.
An 8th grade education is a recent
pre-requisite, although out of 5,000 dabbawalas,
about 85 per cent are illiterate. The remaining
15 per cent are educated up to 8th grade.
"Our system accommodates those who didn't or
couldn't finish their studies. But we have
people who have studied up to high school who
couldn't find respectable jobs," said Medage.
"Farming earns a pittance, compelling us to move
to the city. And the tiffin service is a
business of repute since we are not working
under anyone. It's our own business, we are
partners, it confers a higher status in
society," said Sambhaji, another dabbawala, of
whom only four are women.
"We earn more than many educated graduates,"
added dabbawala Khengle.
The dabbawalas were given ISO quality
certification last year. They also earned
recognition from the Guiness Book of World
Records and Ripley's Believe It Or Not.
They are also proud to have avoided going on
strike for the last 120 years, while producing
near-zero carbon emissions, said MTBSA president