A dabbawala; also spelled as dabbawalla or dabbawallah; is a person in India, most commonly in Mumbai, who is part of a delivery system that collects hot food in lunch boxes from the residences of workers in the late morning, delivers the lunches to the workplace, predominantly using bicycles and the railway trains, and returns the empty boxes to the worker's residence that afternoon. They are also used by meal suppliers in Mumbai, where they ferry ready, cooked meals from central kitchens to the customers and back.
In Mumbai, most office workers prefer to eat home-cooked food in their workplace rather than eat outside at a food stand or at a local restaurant, usually for reasons of taste and hygiene, hence the concept. A number of work-from-home women also supply such home-cooked meals, delivering through the dabbawala network.
When literally translated, the word "dabbawala" means "one who carries a box". "Dabba" means a box (usually a cylindrical tin or aluminium container) from Persian: دَبّه, while "wala" is an agentive 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".
In 1890 Bombay, Mahadeo Havaji Bachche started a lunch delivery service with about a hundred 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 current president of the association is Raghunath Medge.
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 of limited literacy (the average literacy of Dabbawallahs is that of 8th grade), the dabbas (boxes) have some sort of distinguishing mark on them, such as a colour or group of symbols.
The dabbawala then takes them to a sorting place, where he and other collecting dabbawalas sort 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
Lunch boxes are marked in several ways: (1) abbreviations for collection points, (2) colour code for starting station, (3) number for destination station and (4) markings for handling dabbawala at destination, building and floor.
The dabbawalas now allow for delivery requests through SMS. A colour-coding system identifies the destination and recipient. 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 Gandhi cap (topi). Each month there is a division of the earnings of each unit.
Each dabbawala, regardless of role, is paid around 8,000 rupees per month (about US$131 in 2014). Between 175,000 and 200,000 lunch boxes are moved each day by 4,500 to 5,000 dabbawalas.
It is frequently claimed that dabbawalas make less than one mistake in every six million deliveries., however this is only an estimation 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 where this claim first appeared, 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."  Chakravarty recalled the affair in an interview and said:
"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 1.9 errors per billion 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 1.9 error-per-billion 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."
Studies and accolades
- In 2001, Pawan G. Agrawal carried out his PhD research in " A Study & Logistics & Supply Chain Management of Dabbawala in Mumbai". He presents his results on the efficiency of Dabbawallas in various fora.
- In 2005, the Indian Institute of Management (Ahmedabad) featured a case study on the Mumbai Dabbawallas from a management perspective of logistics.
- In 2010, Harvard Business School added the case study The Dabbawala System: On-Time Delivery, Every Time to their compendium for its high level of service with a low-cost and simple operating system.
- "In Pictures: Tiffin time in Mumbai". BBC news. 16 February 2014. Retrieved 2 May 2014.
- 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.
- Agrawal, Dr. Pawan. "Dabbawallahs - A talk by Dr. Pawan Agrawal". Ted X SSN Talks. You Tube. Retrieved 2 May 2014.
- 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 Dabbawalas of Mumbai." South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies 33.2 (2010): 235-257.
- "Dr. Pawan Agrawal". Kaizer. Retrieved 2 May 2014.
- Ravichandran, N. (1 September 2005). World class logistics operations : The case of Bombay dabbawallahs (PDF). Ahmedabad: Indian Institute of Management.
- Thomke, Stefan H.; Sinha, Mona (February 2010). The Dabbawala System: On-Time Delivery, Every Time (Case 610-059). Harvard, Ma.: Harvard Business School.
- "Most dabbawala tiffin crates carried on the hea". Guinness world records. Retrieved 2 May 2014.
- 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.
- The Dabbawala System: On-Time Delivery, Every Time, by Stefan H. Thomke and Mona Sinha, Harvard Business School Case Study, February 2010 (Revised January 2013)
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Dabbawalas.|
- Official website of Mumbai Dabbawala Association, Mumbai, India
- Catering service employing Mumbai Dabbawalas