The dabbawalas (also spelled dabbawallas or dabbawallahs, called tiffin wallahs in older sources) constitute a lunchbox delivery and return system that delivers hot lunches from homes and restaurants to people at work in India, especially in Mumbai. The lunchboxes are picked up in the late morning, delivered predominantly using bicycles and railway trains, and returned empty in the afternoon. They are also used by meal suppliers in Mumbai, who pay them to ferry lunchboxes with ready-cooked meals from central kitchens to customers and back.
In the late 1800's, an increasing number of migrants were moving to Bombay from different parts of the country, and fast food and canteens were not prevalent. All these people left early in the morning for offices, and often had to go hungry for lunch. They belonged to different communities, and therefore had different types of tastes, which could only be satisfied by their own home-cooked meals. So, in 1890, Mahadeo Havaji Bachche started a lunch delivery service in Bombay with about a hundred men. This proved to be successful, and the service grew from there. In 1930, he informally attempted to unionize the dabbawalas. 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 Suppliers Association.
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 "tiffin box delivery man".
Lunch boxes are marked in several ways:
- Abbreviations for collection points
- Colour code for starting station
- Number for destination station
- Markings for handling dabbawala at destination, building and floor
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. Fines are imposed for alcohol, tobacco, being out of uniform, and absenteeism.
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. Some modern infrastructure improvements such as the Navi Mumbai Metro are not used in the supply chain, as cabins do not have the capacity for hundreds of tiffins.
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. The dabbawalas also allow for delivery requests through SMS.
Most tiffin-wallahs are related to each other, belong to the Varkari sect of Maharashtra, and come from the same small village near Pune. Tiffin distribution is suspended for five days each March as the tiffin-wallahs go home for the annual village festival.
Dabbawallahs have traditionally been male, but as of 2013, a few women had begun joining the profession. A dabbawallah can be either a foreman, mukadam, or a simple delivery man, gaddi. Typically, they begin between the ages of 15 and 20. While they take pride in their freedom and the fact that they work in a network of their relatives, the relatively low compensation provided for their physical exertion makes them discourage their own children from joining the profession.
In a typical day, a dabbawallah picks up tiffins every morning and then sorts them once before they are loaded onto the morning train (at approximately 10 a.m.). The tiffins are sorted another time in the luggage compartment of the train. At the destination station, the tiffins are loaded into carts and deposited in stacks at the entrances of the various workplaces. Following lunch, the same procedure is carried out in the reverse order with the empty tiffins.
The earliest meetings of the Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Association were held in the open air. They took up premises in 1943 and settled the headquarters at Dadar in 1962. Located on the first floor of a building, the premises consist of a large, simply furnished room. A large mirrored painting of Saint Dnyaneshwar with Vithoba adorns one corner. Other portraits adorning the room include those of Bal Gangadhar Tilak and the founder of the association, Mahadeo Havaji Bachche.
The association was reportedly started after a dabbawalla was ill-treated by a customer, resulting in the dabbawallas deciding to form a "united front" while dealing with injustices or difficulties, such as funerals. The association also helps with managing legal issues, including conflicts between mukadams and gaddis. All conflicts are resolved in the presence of 20 mukadams, which are selected every six years.
The charitable Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Trust consists of nine members who are elected every five years. Its main role is to collect funds for dharamshalas.
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. Tiffin-wallahs are self-employed. The union initiation fee is 30,000 rupees, which guarantees a 5,000-rupee monthly income and a job for life. The 150 rupee a month fee provides for delivery six days a week.(2002)
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 statistics, 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."— Subrata Chakravarty, 
Various studies have focused on dabbawalas:
- In 2001, Pawan G. Agrawal carried out his PhD research in "A Study & Logistics & Supply Chain Management of Dabbawala in Mumbai". He presented 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 2014, Uma S. Krishnan completed her PhD research in "A Cross-Cultural Study of the Literacy Practices of The Dabbawalas: Towards a New Understanding of Non-mainstream Literacy and its Impact on Successful Business Practices."
- Dabbawallas were invited to the wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles in 2005.
- As of 2010, the dabbawallas were chosen by Bharti Airtel to distribute advertising pamphlets, with a commission for every dabbawalla.
- On 21 March 2011, Prakash Baly Bachche carried three dabbawalla tiffin crates on his head at one time, which was entered as a Guinness World Record.
- In 2011, dabbawalas went on strike for the first time in 120 years to promote and attend a rally at Azad Maidan to support Anna Hazare as part of the 2011 Indian anti-corruption movement.
- Over the years, the dabbawallas have been visited by many prominent personalities like Charles, Prince of Wales, Richard Branson and then US Commerce Secretary, Gary Locke.
- "In Pictures: Tiffin time in Mumbai". BBC news. 16 February 2014. Retrieved 2 May 2014.
- Jun 13, Mohua Das / TNN / Updated; 2021; Ist, 08:13. "Mumbai: Now, dabbawalas to cook your lunch and deliver | Mumbai News - Times of India". The Times of India. Retrieved 21 June 2021.CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
- "Bombay Dabbawalas go high-tech". Physorg.com. Retrieved 15 September 2011.
- Roncaglia, Sara (1 January 2013). "Feeding the city : work and food culture of the Mumbai dabbawalas". OpenBook Publishers. Retrieved 2 May 2017 – via Internet Archive.
- Nair, Supriya (27 September 2011). "The Tiffin History of Mumbai". Livemint. Retrieved 8 April 2017.
- Pathak R.C. (1946, Reprint 2000). The Standard Dictionary of the Hindi Language, Varanasi: Bhargava Book Depot, pp.300,680
- Thakker, Pradip (11 November 2005). "Mumbai's amazing dabbawalas". Rediff News. Retrieved 8 April 2017.
- Dr. Pawan Agrawal (speaker) (24 February 2011). TEDxSSN - Dr. Pawan Agrawal - Mumbai Dabbawalas (YouTube). TEDx Talks. Retrieved 3 May 2017.
- Kadri, Meena (2013). "Dabbawallas: Delivering Excellence". Works That Work magazine. No. 1. Retrieved 2 May 2017.
- "NDMC launches new project to make unemployed women self-reliant". Business Line. Press Trust of India. 13 July 2014. Retrieved 2 May 2017.
- "Taking the story of Mumbai's dabbawalas to IIM Calcutta". Business Line. 20 July 2012. Retrieved 2 May 2017.
- "Mumbai dabbawalas to share success mantra in Dubai". Business Line. Press Trust of India. 2 June 2013. Retrieved 2 May 2017.
- Ramper, Johnny. "Dabbawalas: Preserving Tradition in Modern India". Z.E.N. Foods. Retrieved 8 April 2017.
- Vaswani, Karishma (24 July 2006). "India's tiffinwalas fuel economy". BBC News. Retrieved 2 May 2017.
- Rai, Saritha (29 May 2007). "In India, Grandma Cooks, They Deliver". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 21 March 2021.
- Sangle, Subodh (spokesperson) and Gavande, Kiran (supervisor) (23 July 2014). Lunchbox Legends: The Dabbawalas of Mumbai at Indian Summer Festival Vancouver (YouTube). Indian Summer Festival Canada. Retrieved 3 May 2017.
- Parmar, Beena (2 July 2014). "Mumbai's dabbawalas up delivery charges by ₹100". Business Line. Retrieved 2 May 2017.
- "Dabbawalas to deliver WHO's word". Business Line. 2 April 2014. Retrieved 2 May 2017.
- "Dabawallas". DINODIA Photo Library. Archived from the original on 9 August 2003. Retrieved 3 May 2017.
- "South Asia - Tiffin time for Charles and Camilla". BBC News. Retrieved 3 May 2017.
- "More lunch box ladies to deliver food cooked with love". Business Line. 26 November 2013. Retrieved 2 May 2017.
- Quien, Alexandra (1997). "Mumbai's Dabbawalla: Omnipresent Worker and Absent City-Dweller". Economic and Political Weekly. 32 (13): 637–640. ISSN 0012-9976. JSTOR 4405220.
- Harding, Luke (24 June 2002). "A Bombay lunchbox". The Guardian. Retrieved 2 May 2017.
- "'Dabbawalas' hike delivery charges to meet rising inflation". Business Line. Press Trust of India. 2 July 2014. Retrieved 2 May 2017.
- "Upper Crust ::: India's food, wine and style magazine". Archived from the original on 22 October 2002. Retrieved 3 May 2017.CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
- Chakravarty, Subrata N (10 August 1998). "Fast food". Forbes. Retrieved 21 March 2021.
- Pathak, Gauri Sanjeev (2010). "Delivering the Nation: The Dabbawalas of Mumbai". South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies. 33 (2): 235–257. doi:10.1080/00856401.2010.493280. ISSN 0085-6401. S2CID 145340437.
- "Dr. Pawan Agrawal". Kaizer. Archived from the original on 9 April 2014. Retrieved 2 May 2014.
- Ravichandran, N. (1 September 2005). World class logistics operations : The case of Bombay dabbawallahs (PDF). Ahmedabad: Indian Institute of Management. Archived from the original (PDF) on 24 September 2015. Retrieved 2 May 2014.
- Thomke, Stefan H.; Sinha, Mona (February 2010). The Dabbawala System: On-Time Delivery, Every Time (Case 610-059). Harvard, Ma.: Harvard Business School.
- S, Krishnan, Uma (1 January 2014). "A Cross Cultural Study of the Literacy Practices of the Dabbawalas: Towards a New Understanding of Nonmainstream Literacy and its Impact on Successful Business Practices". ohiolink.edu. Retrieved 2 May 2017.
- "Royal invite for tiffin carriers". BBC News. 5 April 2005. Retrieved 21 March 2021.
- Bondre, Shobha (2011). "Mumbai's Dabbawala". India International Centre Quarterly. 38 (2): 84–96. ISSN 0376-9771. JSTOR 41804004.
- Leahy, Joe (26 October 2010). "MUMBAI'S DABBAWALLAS: High-tech meets low-tech over lunch". Financial Times. Mumbai. Retrieved 21 March 2021.
- "Most dabbawala tiffin crates carried on the head". Guinness World Records. Retrieved 2 May 2014.
- Sheth, Priya; Ganguly, Nivedita (18 August 2011). "Dabbawalas to strike for the first time in 120 years". Business Line. Retrieved 8 April 2017.
- Patwa, Sharvari (11 February 2011). "Dabbawallas get another high profile visitor,this time from US". The Indian Express. Retrieved 21 March 2021.
- Feinberg, Scott (1 September 2013). "Telluride: Indian Oscar Hopeful 'The Lunchbox' Delivers Tasty Surprise". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 21 March 2021.
- Gupta, Shekhar (25 January 2005). "Our computer is our head and our Gandhi cap is the cover to protect it from the sun or rain". The Indian Express. Retrieved 21 March 2021.
- Hart, Jeremy (19 March 2006). "The Mumbai working lunch". The Independent. The Independent group, London. Archived from the original on 25 March 2007. Retrieved 20 March 2007.
- "Indian lunchbox carriers to attend the Royal nuptials". Evening Standard (London). 5 April 2005. Retrieved 20 March 2007.[permanent dead link]
- Bondre, Śobhā (2011). Mumbai's Dabbawala: The Uncommon Story of the Common Man. OMO Books. ISBN 978-81-910356-1-2.
- Thomke, Stefan H.; Sinha, Mona (February 2010). "The Dabbawala System: On-Time Delivery, Every Time - Case - Faculty & Research - Harvard Business School". Harvard Business School. Retrieved 21 March 2021.
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