Dabbawalas

Today the Dabbawala system feeds over 200,000 Mumbai workers, with a sophisticated food delivery network that can be traced back to 1 years ago. The Dabbawala system is so efficient and so notorious that Delivery giants such as FedEx and Amazon have all paid a visit to the decades long food delivery outfit, in an attempt to improve their own corporations. Even the president of the Mumbai Tiffenmen’s Association claims that the Dabbawala only make a mistake one in six million deliveries.

At this point you may be asking questions like ‘what exactly is the Dabbawala?’ and  ‘how does the system work?’. Let us start with what the Dabbawala is.

What is the Dabbawala?

The term ‘Dabbawala’ literally translates into ‘ones who carry the box’ and refers to the thousands of men that make up the system which delivers lunches from workers’ homes to workers at their offices. The system began in 1890 when Mahadeo Havaji Bacche, a Parsi banker, wanted a home cooked meal at his office for lunch. He hired one man from Pune to bring him his lunch, but later expanded to 100 men when the high demand became apparent. Nowadays the Dabbawala system consists of 5,000 dabbawala and mukadams (supervisors who are elected amongst the dabbawalas), most of whom still come from Pune.

The dabbawala’s dedication to their task arises from 2 places; one is a place of monetary gain and one is a place of spirituality. Being a dabbawala pays well with each earning approximately 12,000 rupees as of 2017. Not to mention the social status one gains from being one, dabbawalas have a certain prestige that leads to perks like discounted cell phone subscriptions or scholarships for their children. These materials benefits of being a dabbawala are not the only things that drive the men.

Each dabbawala has serious spiritual reasons for their dedication to their job. Dabbawalas are almost all exclusively members of the Vakari community, which worships the Hindu god Vithala. Vithala teaches   “Anna daan is maha daan”, which translates roughly to ‘donating food is the best charity’. Thus many Dabbawala see their job as a chance to further their spirituality while earning money.

How does it work?

The system itself is simple, but relies heavily on all the moving parts working seamlessly. It starts at 10:00 in the morning when each dabbawala collects all the lunchboxes from the particular area they cover either on foot or by bicycle. On average each dabbawala collects 30 lunch boxes from their area for delivery into the city. After collection the lunch boxes are sorted at a local office or at the train station where they are labelled using an encrypted alphanumeric code that mere mortals would not understand but that dabbawalas can read at a glance. The codes denotes, where the dabba was picked up, which station its destined for and the address of the owner. After being labelled the boxes are then loaded onto train heading to the delivery point, along with their dabbawala. After they are taken off the train the boxes (or dabbas) are sorted once more, and loaded on handcarts or bicycles to be delivered to the workers in their offices. The system is not done yet, as after lunch has ended the whole process is reversed with dabba’s being picked up and sent back to the homes from whence they came, for it all to happen all over again the next day.

This system of delivery of home cooked meals would be especially helpful in the Western world for those with special dietary needs. The convenience of a home cooked keto delivery or, for those with peanut allergies, just a home cooked meal in general could literally be a life saver. Although home cooked keto delivery is not a thing in this part of the world, we can all admire the efficiency and dedication of the dabbawala.

The dabbawala system is over a century old and does not look like it will come to an end anytime soon. As even apps like Uber Eats and Runr can never beat the appeal of a delivered home cooked meal.

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