Dabbawallah, is a person in Mumbai (Bombay), India, whose job is carrying and delivering freshly made food from home in lunch boxes to office workers. The word "Dabbawala" is literally translated as "one who carries a box"; "Dabba" means a box (usually an cylindrical aluminium container), while "wala" is a term of reference to the preceding word (literally translated, the closest meaning would be "tiffin-man"). Though the profession seems to be simple, it is actually a highly specialized trade that is over a century old and has become integral to Mumbai's culture. The dabbawala originated when India was under British rule: many British people who came to the colony didn't like the local food, so a service was set up to bring lunch to these people in their workplace straight from their home. Nowadays, Indian business men are the main customers for the dabbawalas, and the services provided are cooking as well as delivery.
Mumbai is a densely populated city with a huge flow of traffic. Because of this, lengthy commutes to workplaces are common, with many workers traveling by train. Instead of going home for lunch or paying for a meal in a café, many office workers have a cooked meal sent by a caterer who delivers it to them as well, essentially cooking and delivering the meal in lunch boxes and then having the lunch boxes collected and re-sent the next day. This is usually done for a monthly fee. 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 from homes or, more often, from the dabba makers (who actually cook the food). The dabbas have some sort of distingushing mark on them, such as a color or symbol (most dabbawalas are illiterate).
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 rail 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, after lunch, are again collected and sent back to the respective houses.
Everyone who works within this system is treated as an equal. Regardless of what function a dabbawala, everyone gets paid about 4,000 rupees (which equals around 50 British pounds), not a lot of money when one considers that they also return the lunch's packaging to the home.
More than 175,000–200,000 lunches get moved every day by an estimated 4,500–5,000 dabbawalas, all with an extremely small nominal fee and with utmost punctuality. According to a recent survey, there is only one mistake in every 6,000 deliveries. In fact, the American business magazine Forbes gave a Six Sigma performance rating for the precision of dabbawalas. This rating indicates a 99.999999 accuracy percentage of correctness, meaning one error in every six million transactions—an astonishing (and perhaps unbelievable) degree of exactness.
The service is uninterrupted even on the days of extreme weather, such as Mumbai's characteristic monsoons. The local dabbawalas at the receiving and the sending ends are known to the customers personally, so that there is no question of lack of trust. Also, they are well accustomed to the local areas they cater to, which allows them to access any destination with ease. Occasionally, people communicate between home and work by putting messages on chits inside the boxes. Of course, this was before the telecommunications revolution.
The main reason for their popularity could be the Indian people's aversion to fast food joints and love of home made food. Some of them have delivered lectures in top B-schools of India. The BBC has produced a documentary on Dabbawalas, and Prince Charles, during his visit to India, made a point to visit them (he had to fit in with their schedule, since their timing was too precise to permit any flexibility). Dabbawalas have been practising this art for more than a century.
Tiffin is an old-fashioned English word for a light lunch, and sometimes for the box it is carried in. Dabbawalas are sometimes called tiffin-wallas.
In Hong Kong, from the time of the mass influx of people from China during 1945 - 1950s, until people got richer in the 1970s, the same tradition of tiffin carriers existed as in Mumbai. Typically tiffin boxes were coloured with flowers and other devices for the factory workers lunch.
7.00am After being given an address, Simon collects a Dabba to transport across Mumbai. This Dabba contains a typical Indian lunch - curry, vegetables, and a type of bread called Roti.
8.00am The Dabbawallahs often carry the Dabbas on their heads, Simon gives it a go with the one he's been charged with! He walks to the Dabbawallahs' meeting point, for the start of the Dabba's journey.
9.00am This is how it's usually done! It's estimated that a Dabbawallah carries around 40 Dabbas on his head at one time. That's like carrying 40 packed-lunch boxes full of food, on your head!
10.00am Simon helps the Dabbawallahs lift a crate of Dabbas on to a train. He realises just how heavy it is and can't imagine how the Dabbawallahs can balance it on their heads.
11.00am After a really cramped train journey, the Dabbawallahs shift their loads on to a cart. Each cart holds around 200 Dabbas. These carts are then pushed across the city ready for Dabba delivery!
12.30pm Mumbai is well known for being a manic city, vehicles whizz round the city's streets, tooting horns, and coming very close to the Dabbawallah's cart. Simon finds it quite a hair-raising experience.
1.00pm After what seems like a decade of pushing a loaded cart through the hot streets of Mumbai, Simon reaches his destination and hands over the Dabba he's been looking after.
2.00pm The food is gobbled up by the Dabba's recipient, while Simon grabs a quick tea-break outside in the now, blistering heat. Once the food is finsihed, the Dabba is handed back to Simon...
2.45pm Simon must now return the Dabba to where he picked it up this morning. He must repeat the process in reverse, there are no shortcuts for a Dabbawallah, or for a Blue Peter presenter in training. 22nd October 2005 From India