A dabbawala (one who carries the box), sometimes spelled dabbawalla , tiffinwalla , tiffinwalla or dabbawallah, is a person in the Indian city of Mumbai whose job is to carry and deliver freshly made food from home in lunch boxes to office workers. Tiffin is an old-fashioned English word for a light lunch, and sometimes for the box it is carried in. Dabbawalas are sometimes called tiffin-wallas.
Though the work sounds simple, it is actually a highly specialized trade that is over a century old and which has become integral to Mumbai’s culture.
The dabbawala originated when a person named Mahadeo Havaji Bachche started the lunch delivery service with about 100 men.Nowadays, Indian businessmen are the main customers for the dabbawalas, and the service often includes cooking as well as delivery.
Everyone who works within this system is treated as an equal. Regardless of a dabbawala’s function, everyone gets paid about two to four thousand rupees per month (around 25-50 British pounds or 40-80 US dollars).
More than 175,000 or 200,000 lunches get moved every day by an estimated 4,500 to 5,000 dabbawalas, all with an extremely small nominal fee and with utmost punctuality. According to a recent survey, there is only one mistake in every 6,000,000 deliveries.
The BBC has produced a documentary on dabbawalas, and Prince Charles, during his visit to India, visited them (he had to fit in with their schedule, since their timing was too precise to permit any flexibility). Owing to the tremendous publicity, some of the dabbawalas were invited to give guest lectures in top business schools of India, which is very unusual. Most remarkably in the eyes of many Westerners, the success of the dabbawala trade has involved no Western modern high technology. The main reason for their popularity could be the Indian people’s aversion to Western style fast food outlets and their love of home-made food.
The New York Times reported in 2007 that the 125 year old dabbawala industry continues to grow at a rate of 5-10% per year.
Low-tech and lean:
Dabbawala in actionAlthough the service remains essentially low-tech, with the barefoot delivery men as the prime movers, the dabbawalas have started to embrace modern information technology, and now allow booking for delivery through SMS. A web site, mydabbawala.com, has also been added to allow for on-line booking, in order to keep up with the times. An on-line poll on the web site ensures that customer feedback is given pride of place. The success of the system depends on teamwork and time management that would be the envy of a modern manager. Such is the dedication and commitment of the barely literate and barefoot delivery men (there are only a few delivery women) who form links in the extensive delivery chain, that there is no system of documentation at all. A simple colour coding system doubles as an ID system for the destination and recipient. There are no multiple elaborate layers of management either — just three layers. Each dabbawala is also required to contribute a minimum capital in kind, in the shape of two bicycles, a wooden crate for the tiffins, white cotton kurta-pyjamas, and the white trademark Gandhi topi (cap). The return on capital is ensured by monthly division of the earnings of each unit.
The service is uninterrupted even on the days of extreme weather, such as Mumbai’s characteristic monsoons. The local dabbawalas at the receiving and the sending ends are known to the customers personally, so that there is no question of lack of trust. Also, they are well accustomed to the local areas they cater to, which allows them to access any destination with ease. Occasionally, people communicate between home and work by putting messages inside the boxes. However, this was usually before the accessibility of instant telecommunications.
One of the two protagonists in Salman Rushdie’s controversial novel The Satanic Verses, Gibreel Farishta, was born as Ismail Najmuddin to a dabbawallah. In the novel, Farishta joins his father, delivering lunches all over Bombay (Mumbai) at the age of 10, until he is taken off the streets and becomes a movie star.
Dabbawalas feature as an alibi in the Inspector Ghote novel Dead on Time.
The word “Dabbawala” can be translated as “box-carrier” or “lunchpail-man”. In Marathi and Hindi, “dabba” means a box (usually a cylindrical aluminium container), while “wala” means someone in a trade involving the object mentioned in the preceding term, e.g. punkhawala with “pankha” which means a fan and “wala” mean the person who owns the pankha (The one with the fan).