The dabbawalas of Mumbai

My mother’s visit to India in January gave me a chance to play tour guide. I’d always felt that if we had had a choice on where we lived when we moved to India, we may have chosen Mumbai. I feel safer there and public transport is more accessible.I’ve hailed cabs off a Mumbai street and walked around Mumbai neighbourhoods after dark whereas I would NEVER do that in Delhi due to safety concerns. I wanted to show my mother this more progressive side of India.

Another thing I wanted to show her was the dabbawalas at work. She’d been talking about a movie called The Lunchbox ever since I told her we were going to Mumbai. In the movie, a dabbawala gets a delivery wrong and a romantic drama ensues. I had never seen these guys myself so this was a great time to do it.

So what or who are dabbawalas?

They are a unionised group of men who operate a lunch delivery service across Mumbai. It was started in 1890 by a Parsi businessman so he could have a home-cooked lunch at work that met his strict dietary restrictions. An early departure for work meant that he had to leave the house before his lunch was ready so he paid a guy to pick it up and deliver it to him.

Soon more office workers cottoned on to the fact that they could get home-cooked food delivered to them in the middle of the day and the service grew. The profession is passed down from one generation to another so many of these men’s forefathers were probably the original dabbawalas. The men earn an average of Rs15,000 (c. £150) a month and enjoy job security in a respected profession in this city.

Their processes have been hailed as an example of Six Sigma* production. To achieve this, a process must attain 99.9997% perfection, or 3.4 defects per million. There are 5,000 dabbawalas in the city and an estimated 200,000 boxes are delivered to offices every morning and returned home every afternoon, 6 days a week, 51 weeks a year. That’s nearly 120 million annual deliveries. To meet Six Sigma’s exacting standards, fewer than 450 dabbas can go astray each year. So ironically, The Lunchbox is based on something that should rarely happen in real life – a mistake. For those interested in the stats I found this article fascinating (hello, geeky).

Mumbai’s efficient train network is the backbone of the system, enabling the men to traverse the sprawling city and deliver their packages on time. We arrived at Churchgate Station at 11:30am and stood on the central concourse waiting for trains to pull in. One by one, white-hatted men with scores of bags strapped to their torsos and balancing huge wobbly trays over their heads, trickled onto the platform and walked to the sorting place across the road. We followed them and stood on the sidewalk, watching, taking care to stay out of the way.

The lid of each package is marked with a code of numbers and letters that identifies the destinations, a system that has evolved because many dabbawalas have an average school completion of 8th grade and can’t read. Most of the men were quick with a grin and a wave when we made eye contact. Some of the younger ones speak English and one stopped to chat with us, asking where we were from, how we were enjoying Mumbai and whether we wanted to accompany him on his delivery.

This isn’t just merely tourist attraction. It’s a way of life, woven into the fabric of Mumbai society and its daily grind. It is an amazing supply chain and clockwork operation that has received the nod of approval (or is that amazement?) from the likes of Prince Charles, Richard Branson and FedEx. Like all things, even a century-old institution must keep up with the times. Recently the dabbawalas have been trained to deliver packages for Flipkart and more alarmingly, for KFC. Yep you read that right, not a home-cooked meal but the Colonel’s Finger Licking goodness. A sign of the times and a scary prospect for those waistlines.

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