Mumbai is a cosmopolitan city in India that is known for diversity in its rich culture and lifestyle. One cultural feature that is unique as well as popular in this city is a local lunchbox delivery system called ‘Dabbawala‘. Now, being a Mumbaikar i have always wondered as to what makes this efficient food delivery system so special? To satiate my ever burning ‘curiosity’ I had decided to analyze this rather ‘distinctive’ system. So here we go for ‘Tête-à-Tête’ with an actual ‘Dabbawala’ and some other facts about this system.
a. What is the Dabbawala System?
Since 1890 the Dabbawala dressed in white outfit wearing a Gandhi Cap has been doing this stupendous job of transporting hot and fresh lunch on time and bringing smile on millions of faces. So transportation of home made lunch in Dabbas or lunch boxes from homes to working individuals at their workplace or even children attending schools throughout the city is what this system is all about. Furthermore, these lunchboxes are carried either using the local train services or via bicycles. The delivery is made during lunch hours and the lunch boxes or the Dabbas are then taken back to their respective homes. This system has evolved over the years and The Dabbawalas are running this system as an organisation now.
b. What does Dabbawala mean, its etymology?
‘One who carries a box’ is what this term basically means. So, in other words the term ‘Dabba‘ essentially means a cylindrical box made of tin or aluminium, and ‘wala‘ means a doer or holder. So the best literal English translation of this word is ‘Lunch Box delivery man’.
c. When did the Dabbawala service start, and who created it?
‘1890’ was the year when this unique ‘food delivery’ was first established in the ‘City Which Never Sleeps’. It was founded by a man named Mahadeo Havaji Bachche, who initiated this service by hiring only about 100 men. It was in 1930, that Bachche also attempted to form a union for this service, which was unsuccessful. However, it was in 1956 that a charitable trust called ‘Mumbai Tiffin Box Supplier’s Association’ was created for this food delivery service. Finally, in 1968 the commercial wing of the trust mentioned above was formed. As of today, Bhau Saheb Karbande and Subhash Talekar are the president and spokesperson of the association.
d. How does the ‘Dabbawala’ System work?
’11 am’ is round about the time these food delivery men pick up a lunchbox from a specified home located in the city. They then carry approximately 30 boxes either on wooden crates manually or using bicycles to nearest railway station. Now, all the boxes to be delivered comprise of a ‘symbol and colour coding’ indicating, where the tiffin has to be picked from, which railway station is it to be sent to, and the address of the final destination. It is this grading system which ensures that food is delivered on time to the specified individual without any ‘mix-ups’ ever occurring. Furthermore, once the boxes are collected they are taken to a ‘sorting place’. It is at this spot that the ‘Dabbawala’ along with many of his colleagues arrange the boxes in groups. These grouped boxes which are generally marked using different colours indicating the delivery destination, are then loaded into a local train. It is at each station that the appropriate boxes are then handed to the local food delivery men, who then deliver them. In addition, it is post-lunch late in the afternoon that the empty boxes are returned by these unique delivery men.
e. An ‘Encounter’ with a ‘Dabbawala’:
‘I do not mind talking’ calmly stated Ashok Shankar Satpute, a dabbawala, when I asked him if he could spare sometime for some chitchat. Hailing from a quaint little town of Pune situated at a distance of just 150 km from Mumbai, he further adds that ‘It has been about 21 years since I first entered this profession’. While, talking to him I also got to know that it was lack of education which brought him into this profession. With regards to time, he said that ‘My day begins at 9 am and ends at around 5pm’. He also added that ‘It is at 12.30 pm that I deliver the boxes, and about an hour later at 01.30 pm I take them back’. When asked about the area he operates from, he commented ‘It is from Grant Road to Churchgate that I function from’. Interestingly, he also explained to me that the ‘sorting’ of boxes before they are dispatched to their destination, usually occurs in between 11.30 am to 12.00 pm and 02.00 to 03.00 pm pre and post delivery respectively. Unfortunately, since ‘Time Is Precious’ in this business, I had to cut short this interesting conversation I was having with Mr. Satpute by thanking him and moving on.
With the ‘Dabbawala‘ in ‘Maximum City’ having been appreciated by even King Charles, it is clear that this distinctive food delivery system shall always remain a part of the rich cultural heritage possessed by this ‘City of Dreams’.