The Original Uber Eats India’s Amazing Near Century and a Half Old Dabbawala
Every morning around 7 o’clock, a small army descends upon the Indian port city of Mumbai. Dressed in distinctive white uniforms and topi or Gandhi caps, they fan out across the city’s sprawling suburbs to collect their wares before regrouping at local train stations and streaming down a network of rail lines into Mumbai’s commercial heart. There, on bicycles or on foot, they race towards their final destinations in factories and office blocks, making their deliveries with clockwork precision. By one o’clock sharp their work is complete and the army returns home, only for the whole process to start over again the next morning. And what vital commodity, what economic lifeblood to these men carry with such punctuality and reliability? Hot homemade lunches. They are the Dabbawala, a unique Mumbai institution that has kept the city’s workers fed for over 130 years – and which, without computers or an educated workforce, has managed to become one of the most phenomenally efficient and accurate delivery services in the world.
The dabbawala get their name from the dabba or ‘tiffin’, a three-tiered cylindrical metal tin commonly used to carry hot meals in India. In Hindi, wala means “worker” or “carrier”, so dabbawala literally means “tiffin tin carrier.” The practice of deliverymen carrying lunches from workers’ homes to their offices originated in the 1890s during Mumbai’s greatest period of economic expansion. Mumbai – then Bombay – first rose to prominence in the British Empire in 1861 when the American Civil War prompted the British to move their centre of cotton and textile production to what was then a backwater fishing village. The war’s end and the resulting crash in cotton prices brought this newfound prosperity to a screeching halt, but in 1869 the economy swiftly recovered as the newly-opened Suez Canal brought Indian textiles within easy reach of the global market. This boom brought with it a massive wave of migration as Indians from across the subcontinent flooded into Bombay seeking jobs in the city’s factories and offices. This influx placed a great strain upon the city’s services – particularly when it came to food. Most workers had to leave for work early in the morning, before their wives could prepare a hot meal for them. In the early days canteens and other sources of cheap fast food were virtually nonexistent, meaning most workers were forced to go hungry. Those who did manage to pack a lunch found it difficult to carry their bulky tiffins while travelling on densely-packed commuter trains. Compounding the issue was the fact that these workers came from wildly different regions and culinary traditions that only a traditional home-cooked meal would truly satisfy their palate. Bombay faced a major gastronomic crisis desperately in need of a creative solution.
Among the hundreds of thousands of workers who migrated to Bombay in the late 19th Century was Mahadu Havaji Bachuche, a Marathi from Pune district who started out loading and unloading cargo at the docks. According to legend, one day in 1890 Bachuche was commissioned by a Parsi banker to collect his lunch tiffin at his house and deliver it to his office downtown. Bachuche soon began receiving more and more requests for such deliveries, and when he was unable to keep up with demand he organized his own delivery company employing a team of 100 men. Over the years the service steadily grew, eventually becoming an integral part of the city’s commercial infrastructure. In addition to providing homemade meals from upper and middle-class employees, the dabbawala expanded their services to delivering meals from Khanawals – downtown canteens specializing in cheap fast food – to lower-class workers. In 1930 Bachuche informally unionized the dabbawala, forming the Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Supplier’s Trust to standardize work conditions and wages and provide social services to his workers. This was officially registered as a charitable trust in 1956 and finally incorporated in 1968 as the Mumbai Tiffin Box Supplier’s Association – the name under which it still operates to this day.
Today, around 5,000 dabbawala work in the city of Mumbai, delivering anywhere between 175,000 and 200,000 tiffins every single day. Like Mahadu Bachuche, the founder of the organization, most belong to the Warkari sect from Maharashtra in western India. Their delivery process, honed over 130 years, runs like a well-oiled machine. Every morning between 7 and 9 AM, the dabbawala collect the tiffins from their customers’ homes in the suburbs and deliver them to special sorting centres at local railway stations. Each station is manned by four groups of dabbawala of 20 men each; each man can carry up to 35-40 tiffins – around 75kg total – meaning one station can handle up to 3200 tiffins per day. At the station, the tiffins are sorted according to region and the men split up and reassigned based on how many tiffins must be delivered to a particular area. This sorting process takes around 10-15 minutes before the special “Dabbawala Special” trains – with dedicated compartments for the tiffins and their deliverymen – arrive at 10AM. As the trains stream towards the heart of the city, the various subgroups disembark at various stations along the line and hand off the tiffins to waiting delivery crews, who complete the rest of the journey on foot or by bicycle and deliver their tiffins directly to the customers’ workplaces by 12PM. So integrated is the service into Mumbai’s daily life that most office buildings keep one elevator free at lunch to accommodate the dabbawalas. By 1PM all deliveries are complete, and the dabbawala carry out the entire process in reverse, collecting the empty tiffins and delivering them back to their original homes.
Amazingly, the entire operation is run without the help of computers or other modern technology, with one veteran dabawalla stating:
“Our computer is our head and our Gandhi Cap is the cover to protect it from the sun or rain.”
Yet despite the fact that a single tiffin might change hands up to 5 times during its journey from home to office, the organization has achieved a reliability and accuracy nearly unmatched by any delivery service in the world, making at most 1-2 mistakes every month. This translates to around one error every 8 million deliveries – or 16 million if one accounts for the fact that each tiffin is returned to its original home.
Naturally from all of this, the dabbawala have become legendary for their absolute commitment to punctuality and reliability, as Raghunath Medge, current president of the Mumbai Dabbawala Association, explains:
“People trust the dabbawala so much that they put money, train tickets, a pen the husband may have forgotten, eyeglasses, medicines, all sorts in the tiffin. Sometimes, if there’s been a quarrel, the wives may send a note that says ‘sorry.’ We pass on so many messages.”
Unsurprisingly, this reliability has caught the attention of economists and business managers around the world, with the organizational structure and methods of the dabbawala being taught in business schools as far afield as UC Berkeley. But just how is such a low-tech operation staffed by largely uneducated workers able to achieve such high standards of accuracy? Part of the answer lies in the structure of the distribution network, a hub-and-spoke system based around a limited number of central distribution points and dedicated dabbawala teams intimately familiar with specific regions of the city. This model has been compared to the data packet-switching technology that underpins the functioning of the internet. Another factor is the unique coding system used to mark and trace the tiffins. As most dabbawala are at best semi-literate, they use a system of coloured markings and alphanumeric codes painted on the tiffins to trace their origins and destinations. For example, the colour red might indicate a particular district of the city, while a series of letters and numbers might be used to denote a street, office building, and floor.
Yet another factor is the srtructure of the dabbawala organization itself. Despite its size and sophistication, the Mumbai Tiffin Box Supplier’s Association has a remarkably flat hierarchy composed of only three levels. At the top is the Governing Council, composed of a President, Vice President, General Secretary, Treasurer, and 9 directors. Below them are the Mukadams, veteran dabbawala who manage the sorting centres at the train stations. In addition to sorting tiffins for distribution, Mukadams also help resolve disputes between dabbawala and mentor new hires. Finally, there are the dabbawalas themselves, who are not employees but rather independent contractors who pay a 30,000 rupee initiation fee and 150 monthly membership fee to the Association. This in turn guarantees each dabawalla at least six days of work per week and a minimum 5000 rupee monthly income – around $70 USD – for life – an extremely reasonable wage by Indian standards:
“This system accommodates those who didn’t or couldn’t finish their studies. It’s obvious that those who score good marks go for higher education and not to do this job, but we have people who have studied up to standard twelve who couldn’t find respectable jobs. [Some of us] earn more than many padha-likha (educated) graduates.”But these guarantees come with other costs. Like all business partners, dabbawala are expected to front around 5000 rupees in capital to cover the cost of two bicycles, a wooden crate for carrying tiffins, and the signature white uniform and topi hat. Dabbawala are also strictly penalized by the Association for infractions such as absenteeism, delivery mistakes, theft, being out of uniform, and smoking or drinking while on duty. According to Association rules, no dabbawala is allowed to undercut another on delivery fees, and customers are allowed to deduct charges in the case of theft or carelessness.
Yet despite all this, dabbawala are given a great deal of leeway in their routes and methods, further increasing punctuality and reliability by encouraging a spirit of friendly competition. This freedom also instils a sense of pride, independence, and ownership:
“Farming earns a pittance, compelling us to move to the city. And the tiffin service is a business of repute since we are not working under anyone. It’s our own business, we are partners, it confers a higher status in society.”
It is a system that has stood the test of time, allowing the dabbawala to survive and thrive despite more than a century of riots, cyclones, and economic upheavals – the only serious disruption to the service occurring in 1974 due to a railway workers’ strike. According to the New York Times, the 130-year-old dabbawala industry continues to grow at a rate of 5-10% per year, and in recent years has even embraced modern technology, launching a website – www.mydabbawala.com – and an SMS-based ordering service. The effects of this modernization have been immediate and impressive; whereas in the past dabbawala relied on networks of personal contacts to find and maintain customers, the SMS system has allowed the acquisition of up to 15 new customers every day, fuelling unparalleled growth for the industry. The website has also allowed the Association to collect donations and establish a social security fund to may for members’ medical care and life insurance.
And so the ever-reliable dabbawala and their brightly-painted tiffins continue to train, cycle, and walk forward into the 21st Century, proving that while you might not be able to get a free lunch, you can at least get a hot one.
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In Pictures: Tiffin Time in Mumbai, BBC News, February 16, 2014, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-26128597
Bombay Dabbawallas Go High-Tech, phys.org, June 27, 2006, https://phys.org/news/2006-06-bombay-dabbawalas-high-tech.html
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‘Our Computer is Our Head and our Gadhi Cap is the Cover to Protect it from the Sun or Rain’, Indian Express, January 25, 2005, http://archive.indianexpress.com/oldStory/63369/
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