Mumbai’s Dabbawalas

Have you ever heard people talking about food in terms of ‘food is life’?

Well, it actually is. Food is life; it is a stress buster for some, for others, it embodies emotions and fills their hearts with memories. A culture or a place is best represented by the food that it offers. Food comes in different tastes, colors and shapes. In current times, there are so many delivery apps and online food delivering portals. Therefore, food is available at any point of time at almost all places. But even before these startups like Zomato, Swiggy existed, people preferred food from the famous dabbawalas of Mumbai.

Once a Parsi man longed to have home made food, regularly at his office. So, he appointed someone to bring him food everyday. This person became the first dabbawala. People were fascinated with this idea and the demand for dabba delivery soared. Though this system of dabbawalas was informal and depended on individual effort, soon in 1980, the visionary Mahadeo Havaji Bachche saw immense opportunity and launched the first 100 member dabbawalas for the lunch delivery service.

Who are these Dabbawalas?

They define themselves as men dressed in white outfits with traditional Gandhi caps, delivering and serving almost 200000 Mumbaikars with delicious home-cooked food, predominantly on foot, bicycles or through the local trains. Initially, Mr. Bachche organized all the dabbawalas into a charitable trust under the name of Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Trust in 1956. The Mumbai Tiffin Box Supplier’s Association, was registered in 1968. This form of delivery instantly grew with the growth of the city. In recent times, the Mumbai dabbawalas imbibed and kept the importance of technology in mind, by launching an online portal for customers to avail their services.

How does it work?

There is a 4-code system that is followed by the dabbawalas to distinguish one dabba from the other (there are abbreviations for collection points, colour code for starting stations, number for destination stations and markings for handling dabbawalas at destinations, buildings and floors). First, these dabbawalas collect the dabbas either from a worker’s home or from the maker. Then they move on to the second step of sorting and grouping each dabba. These dabbas are then put in the train coaches with tags of the specific destination. Each box is later unloaded and handed over to local dabbawalas who deliver them. The empty boxes are collected after lunch or the next day.

Why are these dabbas famous?

Mumbai, as we all know is a very busy city with a lot of traffic and population. These dabbawalas make sure that fresh food is delivered on time. Values such as team work, integrity towards work, discipline, dedication and excellent management skills are found in them. The independent stated, “Each dabbawala is self-employed and is paid around 8,000 rupees a month. It is seen as a job for life, where the workers live by the philosophy, ‘Anna daan is maha daan’”, which means donating food is the best charity. Though, they aren’t very literate, these values are deeply rooted in them. The way in which they coordinate among themselves is commendable.

Mr. Zach Glassman wrote an article on “Exploring Mumbai with a Dabbawala” for the four season magazine. He shared his experience with the dabbawala, stating that he met Dyaneshwar Paangare, a dabbawala at the Churchgate station. Intrigued by their work, he tried to understand the process. He claimed that even though he didn’t help the dabbawalas in the process of sorting and the final delivery of their shipments, he did gain an overall understanding of the system and its several moving parts. Paangare also provided him some knowledge about the work, amount of precision that the work demands, etc. it is seen that every tiffin box consists of an alphanumeric code which helps the dabbawala to identify the origin, the destination and other crucial information regarding the dabba. Therefore, clearly, “The dabbawala system is a reflection of the Mumbai that surrounds it– incredibly organized chaos”.

It is truly fascinating to observe these Mumbai dabbawalas manage work entirely through human labour, from coordinating to sorting even in the age of modern technology and advancement.

Picture Courtesy- Zee News


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