Dabbawala’s; once the lifeline of Mumbai, now in crisis


We all know of the famous ‘dabbawalas of Mumbai.’
Umpteen stories and articles have been written about these Mumbai men who deliver hot food to their patrons at home, at work, or anyplace.
Irrespective of the weather conditions or national holidays, events, or an incident, the lunchbox delivery system carries on unhindered and in a ‘superman avatar,’ ensuring that hot food is delivered at the right address and to the right person.

However, due to the current COVID – 19 pandemic, this system and the people who make sure that your meals are delivered to you are suffering immense losses and, at a critical point, unsure of what the future holds for them.

The origins of this unique system can be traced back to as early as the 1890s, when Mumbai, as it does now, beckoned a large number of migrants who came to the city for work as well as the natives who went about doing their job.
The need for reliable, affordable, and nutritious food; Mahadeo Havaji Bachche saw an opportunity and started a lunch delivery system with hundred men in Mumbai.

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With the success of this food delivery method, he attempted to formalize a union for the dabbawallas, and later in 1956, a charitable trust was created in the name of Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Trust.

In 1968, the commercial arm of the trust was registered as Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Association.

While they were reports in the media that the Forbes Magazine awarded the dabbawalas a SIX Sigma certification, this was untrue and later clarified by the lead author of the article, Subrata Chakravarty.

However, irrespective that no such recognition was awarded to the dabbawalas, it does not take away from the fact that the system operates with minimum errors and an impressive process that is detailed and well planned.

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The Mumbai trains are the lifeline of the local people for commuting, and this also serves the dabbawalas, and usually, there is a designated coach for the boxes.

These boxes are sorted in groups with color coding for easy identification and destination of the boxes. These markings also help in identifying the railway station to unload the boxes and the delivery address for the destination building/s
At each of these stations, the local dabbawalla is present to collect these boxes and delivers them according to the addresses mentioned.

As the local dabbawalla collects the empty boxes the next day, this process continues, and hands them over, collects the new boxes, and delivers them.
The entire process works flawlessly with minimum errors and through hail or sunshine.

Each Dabbawala is required to invest minimum capital in the form of two bicycles, a wooden crate for carrying the dabbas/tiffins, white cotton kurta – pajamas, a white Gandhi cap.

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It was estimated in 2007 that the dabbawalla industry continued to grow by 5- 10% annually; however, this cannot be said for today’s times.

Today, the dabbawalla industry is majorly impacted because of the coronavirus pandemic.

With offices shut, the local trains suspended, social distancing norms have put a question mark on the safety of the food.
This industry that has thrived since 1890, today finds itself halted, probably for the first time in its entire history.

These men who have been delivering dabbas and feeding the people of Mumbai have lost their income source and are absolutely unsure of what the future holds for them.
Today, it is a challenging scenario for them as they struggle with wage loss and loss of job and an unpredictable future of what, how, and when they can resume work or if at all.


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