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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 Harvard.

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 million transactions.

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 Presse-Agentur dpa.

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 students.

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 mill workers.

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 home-cooked taste.

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 destination.

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 destination.

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 customers.

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 running costs.

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 (0.5 dollars).

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 Madage..
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