The Story of the Mumbai Dabbawalas

We at Feedr love anything to do with innovation, especially when it comes to bringing healthy food to the masses. This is why we do what we do! Bringing healthy, nutritious food to London’s working population requires a large amount of logistical work, written and verbal communication, and a heavy reliance on the internet to facilitate the job.

Half a world away, the dabbawalas of Mumbai similarly execute the daily collection, delivery, and return of over 200,000 home-cooked lunch boxes from their homes to workers across the city and back again. However, they do so without any IT technology or personal cars, and a largely illiterate workforce. Despite this, their accuracy rate is phenomenally high; so high that their system has been studied closely by various logistics companies, including UPS and FedEx, business schools like Harvard, and design schools the world over. The dabbawalas of Mumbai are an impressive example of how well-organised human communication, precision, and dedication can lead to extraordinary results.

What is the dabbawala system?

The word ‘dabbawala’ is a composite word, made from ‘dabba’, meaning box, and ‘wallah’, loosely translated as carrier. Dabbawalas, sometimes known as tiffin wallahs, are essentially delivery men, who form a vast lunchbox delivery and return system, ferrying home- and restaurant-cooked hot lunches, known as tiffins, to India’s working population. Tiffin boxes are stacked aluminum cylinders, each containing; a rice dish at the bottom, followed by a daal, or curried vegetable dish and accompanied by a roti or chapati to mop up the homemade delights. Some even contain a dessert, topping off their hearty meal.

Tiffin boxes organised by destination

The boxes are collected from households in the late-morning, where a wife or mother has spent the morning preparing the home-cooked meal (India still largely adheres to gendered roles).  From there, they are loaded onto a cart and transported to their destinations using predominantly bikes and railways. The route of each tiffin is denoted using a hand-painted labeling system of symbols and colours, indicating the collection address, the train station it is destined for, and the final address of the recipient. After lunchtime, the whole system is reversed and the tiffins are returned to the households they were collected from in the morning.

This system means that every worker, regardless of their palette, preferences, or dietary requirements, will be satisfied with what they know and love from home. Instead of ordering a takeaway or eating out, every customer can have a warm, fresh and homemade meal. Professional meal suppliers in Mumbai, where the system is most popular, also pay dabbawalas to ferry ready-cooked lunch boxes back and forth between central kitchens and customers.

How does the system work?

Tiffins are collected from homes between 7:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. every day and taken by bike or foot to the local train station. At various rail stations along the way, the crates of tiffins are hauled onto platforms and resorted for area distribution. From here, a final relay of dabbawalas deliver the tiffins to their destined bellies. A single tiffin could change hands as many as three or four times during its daily journey.

Collecting tiffins from trains and sorting for bicycle, cart and hand delivery—at the busy dabbawala hub near Churni Road Station

Dabbawalas organise themselves into groups of 25, with each group holding autonomy over their own locality. Every member is responsible for collecting the same 35 – 40 tiffins every single day, a cargo that can weigh up to 70kg. The same is true on the other end of the rail line; where dabbawalas pick up the resorted tiffins and cycle them through the final leg of their journey, to their hungry customer. This “assembly line”-like system ensures that the margin of error is kept minimal, with one estimate claiming an error rate of 1 in 6 million.

A dabbawala waits at a train station for the tiffins’ train
Dabbawala cyclist piles tiffin boxes onto his bicycle

Once consumed, the whole process moves into reverse and the empty boxes return home by 6:00p.m., ready to do it all over again the following day. Each dabbawala in entrusted to pick up the empty tiffin box and return it to its home. This is even preferred to each worker taking the box back on their evening commute, with full faith in the dabbawalas ability to coordinate every trip accurately. There have even been accounts that many customers respect and trust the dabbawala system so much, they would rather send their salary home in a tiffin than carry it home themselves!

Dabbawalas unloading tiffin boxes

The dabbawalas’ precise timing is fundamental to the success of the system. Dabbawalas operate within very small margins of time, allowing only 40 seconds to load boxes onto trains at major stops, and just 20 seconds at interim stops. This strict schedule is engrained into each dabbawala, something few 21st century logistics companies are able to do.

The dabbawala coding system

As many dabbawalas are of limited literacy, a simple coding system comprised of colours, numbers, and letters indicate the collection point, train to be taken, and the final destination of the tiffin. This information is conveyed through markings on the lid of the box.

Diagram explaining dabbawala coding system

Example of the dabbawala code on a tiffin. The green ‘1’ indicates train station destination, ‘1SN1’ denotes building and office floor to be delivered to, and the blue paint indicates the train station of origin

A large, bold number in the centre indicates the neighborhood the box is to be delivered to. A group of characters on the side of the lid show the office building and floor number the box is destined for. The colour and shape of a third symbol designates the station of origin. Full addresses are not provided on the tiffin lid.

A dabbawala pushing a cart full of colourful bags, which form part of the dabbawala code system enabling accurate delivery and return of lunchboxes across Mumbai

To return the empty tiffin back to the appropriate house from the designated station of origin relies instead on the dabbawala’s memory. Households will supply small bags for the tiffin boxes, which vary in appearance. From this information, and his own memory, the dabbawala can safely ferry his cargo of 30 tiffins through the last leg of their journey, to the original owner, with virtually 100% accuracy.

Who are the dabbawalas?

The incredible efficiency of the system comes from the organisation, cooperation, and dedication of the dabbawalas themselves. Their success hinges on precise teamwork and meticulous timing, which arises from their shared heritage, which can be traced to a rural village near Pune, about two and a half hours south of Mumbai. As the story goes, a Parsi banker named Mahadeo Havaji Bacche hired a man from Pune to deliver a home-cooked lunch to his office in the 1880s.

Dashrat Kedari, a modern dabbawala, at his parent’s home in Pune, where the dabbawala system originated

Today, the network has grown into a 5,000-strong army, recognisable by their white cotton kurka uniforms and Gandhi caps. Most of these dabbawalas can trace their ancestry back to the group of Maharashtrian warriors who fought for the nation of Maratha under the legendary warrior-king Shivaji in the 1600s. Their strong values of brotherhood mean that vacancies are generally filled by people from their own community, recommended by the village elders.

A group of dabbawalas in their famous uniforms

Beyond this, the dabbawalas work also has a religious dimension to it, as these workers see themselves as carrying out God’s work. Coupled with the act of giving, this produces a profession that serves God through serving humanity. This is reflected in their slogan, “Anna daan is maha daan”, meaning “donating food is the best charity”. This humble nature may be what makes them obsessed with providing a great service for their customers. As each man is responsible for his own clients, they pride themselves on customer service and professionalism.

The result is a network of workers who have more than just their job description in common. This familiarity and community spirit that confers the superb business advantage of organising and coordinating deliveries magnificently, with only 300 lunchboxes lost each year, and relays inspiration to the younger generation to follow in the footsteps of their fathers. Despite Mumbai being the commercial capital of India, and a tech hub, the dabbawala fleet grows about 5-10% per year.

Who is in charge of the dabbawalas?

Raghunath Megde, president of the MBTSA

The Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Association (MBTSA) is a 125-year-old organisation that oversees the Dabbawalas service. The MTBSA is a remarkably flat organisation, with just three tiers: the governing council (president, vice president, general secretary, treasurer and directors), the mukadams (office-based facilitators who sign up new customers and administer the process) and the 5,000 dabbawalas themselves. Within the MBTSA, nobody is considered an employer, and none are employees.

The great pride and respect that comes with being a dabbawala is what has sustained the tradition for the last 125 years

Instead, after a probation period of 6-month, on-the-job training, a dabbawala is given the option to buy into the business with a sum ten-times their monthly income of about 8,000 – 10,000 Rs, which is just over the GDP per capita of India. In this way, all dabbawalas are equity partners. As well as fostering an increased sense of shared identity, this practice elevates the humble, uneducated workers to “heroes”, working a noble, secure job within a revered organisation, and earning wages more or less in line with what learned graduates would expect to make. In a society which still upholds a caste system, this is particularly poignant.

Astounding Accuracy

The dabbawala delivery service system, thriving in one of the most chaotic megacities in the world, has become an institution in India, and is a fascination of the world. It has also become the envy of some of the largest corporations on the planet, most notably FedEx, due to their jaw-dropping level of accuracy.

Forbes awarded the MTSBA the 6 Sigma award in 2002

The reported figure of 1 mistake per 6 million deliveries comes from a 1998 Forbes interview with Ragunath Medge, the president of the Mumbai Tiffinmen’s Association, who said, “…the 5,000 tiffinwallahs make a mistake only about once every two months”. This was later extrapolated by Forbes to mean the dabbawalas make just one error in every 6 million deliveries, leading to the award of a 6 Sigma performance rating by Forbes in 2002 (a prestigious recognition awarded in quality assurance when accuracy is 99.9999999% or more).

Mumbai is the commercial capital of India

In a city that is rapidly changing both socially and technologically, the dabbawalas are a testament to how far local knowledge, interpersonal relationships and hard work can go. The industrious staff deliver an estimated 200,000+ meals a day, every day, throughout the monsoon season and into the long hot Indian summers.

What does the future hold for the dabbawalas

As India’s economic continues to sky-rocket, the question of whether and how long for dabbawalas will continue to exist has crossed more than a few minds. The emerging middle-class, as well as younger generations, are increasingly choosing to eat out and order take-away through the rising number of food delivery apps available in Mumbai.

Younger generations are embracing technological advances and eating out more

This might appear to threaten the popularity of the dabbawala service, as younger generations increasingly rely on technology to source their meals from delivery startups like Scootsy. However, the dabbawalas find their saving grace in its low price point. Customers using the dabbawala network only pay 450Rs (£4.95) a month for their home-cooked deliveries, making it impossible for modern competitors entering the market to set up their own logistical infrastructure and remain competitive. The result is modern companies, such as juice cleanse-delivery startup Raw Pressery, are completely reliant on the existing dabbawala infrastructure to distribute their product to health-conscious customers, if they want to remain competitive.

Delivery men from Scootsy deliverymen are a far cry from their dabbawalla counterparts, in loud orange trousers and modern black polo tops

While the dabbawala network itself doesn’t appear to be in danger of disappearing, they might be forced to alter the nature of their business if they are to remain relevant. Rather than exclusively supplying home-cooked meals, they could be simultaneously forced and enticed by the prospect of higher wages, to also work as contractors for the emerging food delivery businesses in order to meet the growing demand in the city.

Drawing inspiration for Feedr

It is no secret that we at Feedr are passionate about good, wholesome, healthy food, and delivering it to hungry workers across London. While we’re proud of our commitment to changing the way that Londoners eat lunch at work, we can’t hold a candle to India’s beautifully simplistic, 125-year old food delivery system! We draw inspiration from the story of the dabbawalas. It warms our hearts to be reminded just how universal the love of healthy home-cooked food really is, and how much people are willing to do to for it.

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