(By Ms. Disha R Khandare)

Hungry Kya…? Would you like pizza from local Dominos (30 minute delivery) or packed food from the hotels? Most people living in the urban areas don’t have a choice unless its Mumbai where the army of 5000 dabbawalas pick up the lunch boxes from homes and deliver it to the workers, managers, students working in Mumbai every day. Amazingly, the dabbawalas who are semi-literate workers have largely managed themselves to perform excellently at low level cost and in eco-friendly way without making use of IT system or even the mobile phones.

Mumbai’s dabbawalas have a legendary history and it runs parallel with Bombay itself. The dabbawalas have survived all the famines, floods, Hindu-Muslim riots and series of terrorist attacks. It all started about 135 years ago when India was under British Raj. There was a Parsi banker who wanted to have home cooked food regularly to his work site and therefore he gave this responsibility to one such dabbawala. His colleagues at that time liked the idea and they also started availing the service of dabbawalas. In the year 1890, it was an informal and individual effort to start up with delivering of lunch boxes. It was then, a visionary man named Mahadeo Havji Bacche from Pune who took a chance when opportunity appeared and started food distribution system.

In the year 1930, he formally attempted to unionize the dabbawalas. Later on, in the year 1956, a charitable trust was registered in the name of Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box. As Mumbai grew over the years a commercial arm of this trust was registered as Mumbai Tiffin Box Supplier’s Association.

For dabbawalas, the day begins at 9 am with an hour spending collecting all the 20-25 dabbas from the surrounding areas. And the waiting time is maximum 2 minutes. After collection of dabbas, the dabbawala goes to the nearest railway station where he assembles with other dabbawalas of his area. At the departure station the dabbas are shared out according to the next destinations with the help of local transport (railways). Although there is no formal agreement between the railways and the dabbawalas but generally the goods compartment at the head of the train is left for them. The dabbas are loaded very fast within 30 seconds of train leaving the station.

There are several strategic nodes near the railway stations that serve as the main center for final sorting. In such a case, the mukadam takes charge for efficient co-ordination of delivery system so that no daaba is lost or routed to wrong destination. At around 12.30- 1 p.m. the dabbas are taken to the place of work of the “receiver-customer”.

A detailed codification process facilitates the sorting of dabbas. The dabbas or the Tiffin (lunch box) is a cylindrical box made of tin or sometimes aluminium.Most of the dabbawalas barely could read or write and hence the “address” of the customer is painted on the top of the dabba with codes. The coding system “speaks” to its bunch of illiterate workers who provide cheap labour and a committed workforce. The code, which is painted on the dabba top, is restricted first by the size of the top itself – six inches in diameter. The codes use colour, dashes, crosses, dots and simple symbols which are familiar to Indian cultural context to indicate the various parameters such as originating suburb, route to take, destination station, whose responsibility, the street, building, floor, etc.

The dabbawalas need not know the precise address since they know the address in collection area by heart. For instance, a “3” marked at the centre of dabba indicates the destination Nariman point. Similarly 10 stand for suburb Kandivli. For the names of roads and buildings the dabbawalas have their own identification marks. For example the SNDT university building is known as “khamb ka” because it is having many flag posts. Again Life Insurance Corporation building at Nariman point is identified as “Vakda” due to its curved structure.

When dabbawala comes in contact with new customer in his area, then the particular dabbawala will do the complete journey and appoint a new dabbawala in his place for time being to do his daily routine. Once the chains are established and stops are decided then the address is marked on the particular dabba of the new customer. The work is known for its ingenuity, special codes and markings.

The dabba code identification code was also essential during in 1993, when there were bomb attacks on the railway network. On that occasion despite strict controls, there was no specific inspections of dabbawalas due to the trust placed on them by Mumbai police. The dabbawalas themselves come to know if there any abnormalities in their tiffin. Only the dabbawalas and the people in his group can identify whether the dabba is a part of his line or not. If not, then they would refuse it immediately.

The operations that dabbawalas are running are good example of how the base of pyramid is being used to help people in that same segment. They are providing employment to low income members of community and using cheap labour to deliver lunches. What is the secret in dabbawalas success..? The success of operations in terms of six sigma, extreme certainty and predictability of operations coupled with equally simple design. Practically nothing changes for the entire course of operation except an addition or deletion of containers and may be a few persons.

Apart from this, the only basic skills required for this job are possessing the physical strength which is needed to carry the heavy carts and second one is being the native of the areas common to all the dabbawalas. These two elements complement each other, because they allow the workers to ground their communication in shared language they recognise as their own.

The shared aim of each dabbawala is to deliver the lunch box of its customer on time. Each dabbawala considers himself as a shareholder and entrepreneur. The group is organised internally so if one is absent then the other quickly replaces him without affecting the flow of supply chain. The business enterprise of dabbawalas provides financial opportunities for the migrant workers and coexists socially by providing services to number of customers in Mumbai

The system of dabbawalas promotes the sharing of responsibilities with interpersonal cooperation and the enterprise is probably most cost efficient and environment friendly, with zero percent fuel usage.

The attitude of dabbawalas can be explained with the help of metaphor: – The five fingers of hand alone cannot do much, but if they work together they can grasp, embrace, grip and make hundreds of gestures”.

The dabbawalas are an incredible team. They have survived for over one hundred years, through wars, through political crisis, the technological craze and the Blackberry revolution. But they are still intact. They have a record of no strikes against management in a socialistic country such as India, and they are always on-time, even through the rainiest days on the planet. Their creativity and ingenuity have kept them alive. When telephone services were at a premium in India, the dabbawalas encouraged housewives to use their system to communicate with their spouses by placing little chits inside their boxes. The husbands enjoyed the chits as much as the food. Thus, the dabbawalas were able to “think outside the box” and broaden their capabilities given very limited infrastructure.