I recently watched an enjoyable film The Lunchbox made in 2013 by first-time director Ritesh Batra, set in modern-day Mumbai. A lunchbox is delivered to the wrong person, and this leads a young housewife, who is ignored by her husband, and an older man, who is about to retire, to correspond with each other through notes in the lunchbox, both seeking an escape from the frustrations of their lives. It is a delightful and engaging film.
The backdrop to the film is Mumbai’s remarkably efficient lunchbox delivery system that collects stacked metal boxes containing lunches that have been prepared by wives and mothers, from the suburban homes of thousands of workers in the morning, delivers the boxes to workplaces in time for lunch, and then returns the empty boxes to the customer’s house in the afternoon.
In the credits at the end of the film it mentions that the film was made with the support of the Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers’ Association. Tiffin was originally the name in British India for a light meal taken in the heat of the day between breakfast and dinner, and the container in which the food was stored, usually a cylindrical tin or aluminium container, was known in Urdu as a dabba, meaning a box. The person who carries a tiffin box is known as a dabbawala (also spelt dabbawalla or dabbawallah), and the film shows hundreds of dabbawalas in action. ‘Wala’ is a suffix used to denote a person performing a task relating to a particular thing, so the closest meaning of dabbawala in English is ‘lunch box delivery man’.
The lunch delivery service was started in 1890 by Mahadeo Havaji Bachche with about a hundred men. In 1956, a charitable trust was registered in under the name of Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Trust, with the commercial arm of the trust being registered in 1968 with the name of Mumbai Tiffin Box Supplier’s Association. In Mumbai, between 175,000 and 200,000 lunch boxes are transported by 4,500 to 5,000 dabbawalas, all for the extremely low charge of 300 rupees per month (about £3.20 or $5 in 2014) with the utmost punctuality and reliability.
A collecting dabbawala, usually on bicycle, collects the dabbas either from a worker’s home or from dabba makers, who prepare the meals in central kitchens. The dabbawala then takes them to a designated sorting place, where he and other collecting dabbawalas sort (and sometimes bundle) the lunch boxes into groups. The grouped boxes are put on trains at railway stations, usually in carriages designated for the boxes. As many of the carriers are of limited literacy, the dabbas are marked in several ways: (1) abbreviations for collection points, (2) a colour code for the starting station, (3) a number for the destination station, and (4) markings for the handling dabbawala at the destination, to identify where the box has to be delivered to ie. the building and the floor. A detailed explanation of the markings can be seen here.
The service is almost always uninterrupted, even on the days of severe weather such as monsoons. Dabbawalas are familiar with their local area, using shortcuts to deliver their goods on time. In the past, people would communicate between home and work by putting messages inside the boxes, as in the film, but this practice is disappearing with the rise of phone texting. Delivery requests are now often made through text messaging.
Each dabbawala is required to contribute a minimum capital in kind, in the form of a bicycle, a wooden crate for the tiffins, white cotton kurta-pyjamas, and white topi or cap. Each month there is a division of the earnings of each unit, and each dabbawala, regardless of role, is paid about 8,000 rupees per month (about £80 or $125 in 2014). Many dabbawalas belong to the Varkari sect of Maharashtra in which Tukaram’s teachings of helping each other is central to their efficiency and motivation.
It is frequently claimed that dabbawalas make less than one mistake in every six million deliveries. However, this error rate was extrapolated from a statement in 1998 by Ragunath Medge, the then president of the Mumbai Tiffin Box Supplier’s Association, that dabbawalas make a mistake ‘almost never, maybe once every two months’, and it is likely to be conservative. The delivery system used by the dabbawalas has been examined by international logistics and distribution businesses to see if anything can be learnt, but the system is based on mutual co-operation where every dabbawala is responsible for the final result, where the profits are shared equally, and where every dabbawala knows his clients personally. Even allowing for the extremely low wages of the dabbawalas, which reflect the caste inequalities that exist in India – and not forgetting that income inequality has been growing in many Western countries – it is hard to imagine such a co-operative operating in other free market economies.
A number of documentaries have been made about the dabbawalas. Prince Charles met them during his visit to India in 2003 and it is said that he had to fit in with their schedule, since their timing was too precise to permit any flexibility. Two of the dabbawalas were invited as guests to his wedding in 2005.
It is often asked why workers can’t take their lunch with them when they leave in the morning to go to work, or why not just eat at their place of work? In the first case workers usually leave early in the morning and come home late at night with an average travelling time each day of three hours in addition to the eight to ten-hour work day. Trains in and out of Mumbai are extremely overcrowded, much more than passengers on trains or metros in Europe would ever experience. It would be physically impossible for Mumbai commuters to also carry their lunchboxes with them and at the same time get on and off the trains, and move through the carriages. Secondly, many office workers prefer to eat home-cooked food as prepared by their wives or mothers, for reasons of familiarity and taste, and commitment to the family.
On 21 March 2011, dabbawalla Prakash Baly Bachche carried three tiffin crates on his head at one time, and this was entered as a Guinness world record.