A dabbawala; also spelled as dabbawalla or dabbawallah; is a person in India, most commonly in Mumbai, who collects freshly cooked food in lunch boxes from the residences of mostly-suburban office workers, 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 Anglo-Indian word, derived from obsolete English slang "tiffing" (to sip), 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 Hindi 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.
Indian businesspersons are the main customers for the dabbawalas, increasingly affluent families employ them instead for lunch delivery to their school-aged children. The service provided usually consists of delivery of home-made food, or sometimes food ordered from a restaurant, but sometimes it can include cooking.
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 a hundred men. In 1930, he[who?] 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 current president of the association is Raghunath Medge.
Mumbai is one of the most populated cities on earth with huge flows of traffic. Because of this, lengthy commutes to workplaces are common, with many workers travelling by train.
Instead of going home for lunch or paying for a meal, many office workers have a cooked meal sent from their home, or sometimes from a caterer who 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. 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 destination building delivery address.
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
The dabbawalas have started to embrace technology, and now allow for delivery requests through SMS. An on-line poll on the web site[which?] 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 identification system for the destination and recipient. There are just three layers of management. Each dabbawala is 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.
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, when the dabbawalas formally came into existence, none of them had ever gone on strike until 2011 when the members decided to head towards Azad Maidan to support Anna Hazare in his campaign against corruption.
Each dabbawala, regardless of role, is paid about eight thousand rupees per month. Between 175,000 and 200,000 lunch boxes are moved by 4,500 to 5,000 dabbawalas, all with an extremely small nominal fee and with utmost punctuality.
It is frequently claimed that dabbawalas make less than one mistake in every six million deliveries. However, this error rate is conservative as it is estimated from Ragunath Medge, the president of the Mumbai Tiffinmen's Association in 1998, and is not from a rigorous study. Medge told Subrata Chakravarty, the lead author of the 'Fast Food' article by Forbes, that dabbawalas make a mistake "almost never, maybe once every two months" and this statement was extrapolated by Subrata Chakravarty to be a rate of "one mistake in 8 million deliveries." 
The BBC has produced a documentary on dabbawalas and Prince Charles visited them during his visit to India; he had to fit in with their schedule, since their timing was too precise to permit any flexibility. 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 
Six Sigma myth
It has been frequently asserted that dabbawalas were awarded a Six Sigma certification by Forbes magazine. This is a myth perpetuated by the news media who inferred the accreditation from the 1998 article in Forbes. In 2007, an explanation was provided by the lead author of the article, Subrata Chakravarty in a private email correspondence to Gauri Sanjeev Pathak:
"Forbes never certified the dabbawalas as being a six-sigma organization. In fact, I never used the term at all. As you know, six-sigma is a process, not a statistic. But it is commonly associated with a statistic of 3.4 errors per million operations, and that is what caused the confusion … . I was impressed by the efficiency and complexity of the process by which some 175,000 tiffin boxes were sorted, transported, delivered and returned each day by people who were mostly illiterate and unsophisticated. I asked the head of the organization how often they made a mistake. He said almost never, maybe once every two months. Any more than that would be unforgivable to customers. I did the math, which works out to one mistake in 8 million deliveries—or 16 million, since the tiffin carriers are returned home each day. That is the statistic I used.
Apparently, at a conference in 2002, a reporter asked the president whether the tiffinwallahs were a six-sigma organization. He said he didn't know what that was. When told about the 3.4 error-per-million statistic, I'm told he said: "Then we are. Just ask Forbes". The reporter, obviously without having read my story, wrote that Forbes had certified the tiffinwallahs as a six-sigma organization. That phrase was picked up and repeated by other reporters in other stories and now seems to have become part of the folklore."
On 28 December 2011, the British series, "Top Gear" broadcast the episode "India Special" where Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May travelled 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 failed 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 lost and subsequently ruined some of his cargo, and May, trying to take a ring road approach to the station, took a wrong turn and ends up in the countryside.
In 2013 film The Lunchbox, revolves around a mistaken delivery in dabbawala of Mumbai, which leads to a relationship between an about to retire, Saajan, also a lonely widower and an unhappy housewife, Ila as they start exchanging notes through the daily lunchbox.
- "tiffin, n.". OED Online. March 2013. Oxford University Press.
- 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
- The Guardian. A Bombay lunchbox (June 24, 2002).
- Chakravarty, Subrata N. "Fast food." Forbes. 10 Aug. 1998. Forbes Magazine. 21 Sept. 2013 http://www.forbes.com/global/1998/0810/0109078a.html.
- Pathak, Gauri Sanjeev. "Delivering the Nation: The Dabbawala s of Mumbai." South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies 33.2 (2010): 235-257.
- Amberish K Diwanji, "Dabbawallahs: Mumbai's best managed business", Rediff.com, November 4, 2003
- Mydabbawala.com: Accolades To Dabbawala
- 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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