A dabbawala; also spelled as dabbawalla or dabbawallah; literally meaning ("box person"), is a person in India, most commonly found in the city of Mumbai, who is employed in a unique service industry whose primary business is collecting freshly cooked food in lunch boxes from the residences of the office workers (mostly in the suburbs), delivering it to their respective workplaces and returning the empty boxes back to the customer's residence by using various modes of transport. "Tiffin" is an old-fashioned English word for a light lunch or afternoon snack, and sometimes, by extension, for the box it is carried in. For this reason, the dabbawalas are sometimes called Tiffin Wallahs.
Etymology and historical roots 
The word "Dabbawala" in Marathi when literally translated, means "one who carries a box". "Dabba" means a box (usually a cylindrical tin or aluminium container), while "wala" is a suffix, denoting a doer or holder of the preceding word. The closest meaning of the Dabbawala in English would be the "lunch box delivery man". Though this profession seems to be simple, it is actually a highly specialized service in Mumbai which is over a century old and has become integral to the cultural life of this city.
The concept of the dabbawala originated when India was under British rule. Many British people who came to the colony did not like the local food, so a service was set up to bring lunch to these people in their workplace straight from their home. Nowadays, although Indian businesspersons are the main customers for the dabbawalas, increasingly affluent families employ them instead for lunch delivery to their school-aged children. Even though the services provided might include cooking, it primarily consists of only delivery either home-made or in that latter case, food ordered from a restaurant.
The Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Trust 
This service originated in 1880. In 1890, Mahadeo Havaji Bachche and Ananth Mandra Reddy started a lunch delivery service with about 100 men. In 1930, he informally attempted to unionize the dabbawallas. Later a charitable trust was registered in 1956 under the name of Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Trust. The commercial arm of this trust was registered in 1968 as Mumbai Tiffin Box Supplier's Association. The present President of the association is Raghunath Medge. Nowadays, the service often includes cooking of food in addition to the delivery.
Supply chain 
Instead of going home for lunch or paying for a meal and eating out every day in a café, many office workers have a cooked meal sent either from their home, or sometimes from a caterer who essentially cooks and delivers the meal in lunch boxes and then have the empty lunch boxes collected and re-sent the same day. This is usually done for a monthly fee of about 450 Indian rupees. The meal is cooked in the morning and sent in lunch boxes carried by dabbawalas, who have a complex association and hierarchy across the city.
A collecting dabbawala, usually on bicycle, collects dabbas either from a worker's home or from the dabba makers. As many of the carriers are illiterate, the dabbas have some sort of distinguishing mark on them, such as a colour or group of symbols.
The dabbawala then takes them to a designated sorting place, where he and other collecting dabbawalas sort (and sometimes bundle) the lunch boxes into groups. The grouped boxes are put in the coaches of trains, with markings to identify the destination of the box (usually there is a designated car for the boxes). The markings include the railway station to unload the boxes and the building address where the box has to be delivered.
At each station, boxes are handed over to a local dabbawala, who delivers them. The empty boxes are collected after lunch or the next day and sent back to the respective houses.
Appearance and coding 
Although the service remains essentially low-tech, with the delivery men as the prime movers, the dabbawalas have started to embrace technology, and now allow for delivery through SMS. 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. 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 form of two bicycles, a wooden crate for the tiffins, white cotton kurta-pyjamas, and the white trademark Gandhi cap (topi). The return on capital is ensured by monthly division of the earnings of each unit.
Uninterrupted services 
The service is almost always uninterrupted, even on the days of severe weather such as monsoons. The local dabbawalas and population know each other well, and often form bonds of trust. Dabbawalas are generally well accustomed to the local areas they cater to, and use shortcuts and other low profile routes to deliver their goods on time. Occasionally, people communicate between home and work by putting messages inside the boxes; however, with the rise of instant communication such as SMS and instant messaging, this trend is vanishing.Since 1890 ,the year in which the Dabbawalas formally came into existence ,none of its members had ever gone on a strike.This trend was broken in 2011 when the members decided to head towards Azad Maidan to support Anna Hazare in his campaign against corruption.
Economic analysis 
Each dabbawala, regardless of role, gets paid about eight thousand rupees per month.
In 1998, Forbes Magazine found its reliability to be that of a six sigma standard.[better source needed] This implies that the Dabbawalas make less than one mistake in every 6 million deliveries, despite most of the delivery staff being illiterate. More than 175,000 to 200,000 lunch boxes get moved every day by an estimated 4,500 to 5,000 dabbawalas, all with an extremely small nominal fee and with utmost punctuality.
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). Prince Charles also invited them to his wedding with Camilla Parker Bowles in London on 9 April 2005. Owing to the tremendous publicity, some of the dabbawalas were invited to give guest lectures in some of the 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 advanced technology, except for trains (and as mentioned above, SMS services for booking).
Awards and recognition 
- ISO 9001:2000 certified by the Joint Accreditation System of Australia and New Zealand 
In Media 
On 28 December 2011, the British series, "Top Gear" broadcasted the episode "India Special" where Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May travel to India for a "trade mission". In Mumbai, they aimed to beat the efficiency of the dabbawala by using a car instead of a train. The mission fails when Clarkson, in a rush to beat the train, did not take enough cargo, leaving Hammond to carry Clarkson's load as well as his own. Hammond accidentally loses and subsequently ruins some of his cargo, and May, trying to take a ring road approach to the station, takes a wrong turn and ends up in the countryside.
- Pathak R.C. (1946, Reprint 2000). The Standard Dictionary of the Hindi Language, Varanasi: Bhargava Book Depot,pp.300,680
- "Bombay Dabbawalas go high-tech". Physorg.com. Retrieved 2011-09-15.
- Mumbai's amazing Dabbawalas.Rediff.com (November 11, 2005).
- In India, Grandma Cooks, They Deliver from The New York Times
- BBC News: India's tiffinwalas fuel economy
- "Book delineates the 120-year-old history of the dabbawalas". Mumbai. Times of India. September 25, 2011. Retrieved 2013-05-19.
- The Guardian. A Bombay lunchbox (June 24, 2002).
- Amberish K Diwanji, "Dabbawallahs: Mumbai's best managed business", Rediff.com, November 4, 2003
- Mydabbawala.com: Accolades To Dabbawala
Further reading 
- Shekhar Gupta, Our computer is our head and our Gandhi cap is the cover to protect it from the sun or rain, Indian Express, Walk the Talk, NDTV 24x7.
- Hart, Jeremy (2006-03-19). "The Mumbai working lunch". The Independent Online (The Independent group, London). Retrieved 2007-03-20.
- "Indian lunchbox carriers to attend the Royal nuptials". Evening Standard (London) (Associated Newspapers Ltd). 2005-04-05. Retrieved 2007-03-20.
- Mumbai’s Dabbawala: The Uncommon Story of the Common Man, Shobha Bondre. tr. Shalaka Walimbe. OMO Books, 2011. ISBN 81-910356-1-8.
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