Every morning, six days a week, Kiran Gavande tours the Lower Parel neighbourhood of Mumbai on his bicycle collecting lunchboxes called dabbas from his customers. In the last few years, online food-delivery companies like Deliveroo and Uber Eats have made having specially prepared food brought to your desk seem like the height of app-based luxury. Similar start-ups are gaining popularity in India too. But dabbawalas have been doing it for years — and the newcomers have much to learn. They make a tidy side-line hosting executives from delivery giants like FedEx and Amazon. Even Richard Branson has spent a day learning their secrets.
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David Pilling and Avantika Chilkoti. On the lurid-red crate, fenced in by a metal rim, are 30 or so silver tins, sides dented and lids clattering under the strain of the ascent. Kedari, now 47, has been a dabbawala for more than three decades. Organised in a co-operative, they enjoy job security and command respect in this toughest of Indian cities.
Kedari started skipping school before he was Mostly, he played around in the fields where his parents cultivated a subsistence-sized plot of rice, millet and onions.
He learnt to ride a bike, the stock-in-trade of the dabbawala. Feeding people is a worthwhile occupation. Studied by consultants and business schools for the secrets of their proclaimed near-flawless efficiency, the dabbawalas have been feted by British royals Prince Charles and titans of industry Richard Branson alike.
Even FedEx, which supposedly knows something about logistics, has paid them a visit. The dabbawalas conduct some , transactions daily — , boxes are delivered to offices every morning and , are returned home every afternoon — six days a week, 51 weeks a year. Among the explanations for such supposed accuracy, the Harvard Business Review honed in on four: organisation; process; worker empowerment the dabbawalas set their own prices and find their own customers ; and culture they hail from the same cluster of villages and have a shared religion and language.
Kedari had a minor role in a scene in which the dabbawalas chant a religious song. Yet the focus on an error has not endeared the film to its protagonists. This morning, as on most days, Kedari started at 8am, when he left his one-room home — shared with his wife and two children — in the sprawling working-class district of Jogeshwari. An hour later, he had begun his regular route, picking up boxes from middle-class residents in Andheri West, ready for lunchtime delivery to the office blocks that seem to spring up daily in this fervently commercial city of 20 million people.
The morning round is hectic. Pick-ups at each residence are limited to 30 seconds, a minute tops. If Kedari arrives late, or if the dabba is not ready for collection, the whole timetable can careen into chaos.
At each door, he rings the bell and, after a brief pause, someone emerges with a tiffin box packed with a home-cooked lunch ready for collection; the box has several stacked metal compartments to keep the flavours separate.
Most of the families who use the dabbawala service have particular dietary requirements. Parsis, descendants of Zoroastrians from Iran, and Gujaratis from the state that neighbours Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital, have distinctive cuisines. The lunchbox she has prepared contains curried vegetables, dal, rice and freshly made chapattis. Dabbas safely collected, Kedari lashes them to the back of his motorbike.
There are about 30 in all. The arrangement looks more than a little precarious. The literate are no use in this industry. Kedari is unusual in having a motorbike. Most dabbawalas have stuck to carts or push bikes, which are easy to manoeuvre through the narrow lanes and clogged traffic.
He soon reaches Andheri railway station, where other dabbawalas have gathered. Each has brought two dozen or more tiffin boxes, many of them wrapped in heat-preserving covers, from the Andheri neighbourhood. These are now arranged, seemingly haphazardly, on the pavement opposite the station. All around is the tooting of motorised rickshaws and the confusion of commuters. The dabbawalas busily sort the tins into batches according to their codes.
Few tiffins are picked up and dispatched by one dabbawala — like many big logistics companies, the dabbawalas operate a hub-and-spoke system. Most tiffins reach their destination via several pairs of hands.
By now, Kedari has arranged his crate, which will go to Lower Parel further down the line. Tiffin tins rattling on his head, he makes for the platform and boards the train for Santacruz, where he needs to change on to another line. Kedari hauls his load to the top of the stairs and rounds the corner on to a walkway running across the tracks. In the busy thrum of an Indian station, few give the sight of the dabbawala and his careering tiffin boxes a second glance.
Halfway along the walkway, tiled in black-and-white squares and blotched with red betel-nut spit like a blood-splattered chessboard, Kedari heads back down a stairway on to another platform. He marches purposefully along until he reaches an unmarked spot in the glaring sun. Sweat slides down the back of his neck, though he professes not to feel the heat. With the aid of his companion Ganesh — who has suddenly appeared — he heaves the groaning crate to the ground. A train shunts into the station.
Passengers in the crowded compartments lean out of the doors even before it stops. As it hisses to a halt, the small carriage reserved for luggage stops exactly at the spot where Kedari has set down his tiffins on the platform. Medge says that, of the Six Sigmas, he awards two to his own organisation, two to the bicycle and two to the train. In the luggage compartment, dabbawalas sit cross-legged on the floor, tiffin boxes piled around them.
Kedari and Ganesh pull their crate into the compartment and squat on their haunches against a tinny blue wall. Fans sit motionless in the stilted air, their protective grills thick with years of grime. Crows caw noisily outside. Kedari suddenly leaps to his feet. Picking up a single tiffin, he passes it through the window to a dabbawala in an adjacent train. Later he explains that he has calculated the tiffin will arrive at its destination earlier by this alternative route. The train jerks from the platform.
The carriages rattle past thick vegetation and higgledy-piggledy houses crammed up against the tracks. A little way down the line, those who are not inured to it smell Mahim Creek before they see it.
A black, open sewer, choked with mangroves and poisoned by industrial effluent, it is teeming with slum life. Kedari and Ganesh muscle their crate off the train, along the platform, up the steps and out on to a busy flyover. They rely too on close connections with Shiv Sena, a pro-Marathi Hindu nationalist party that has dominated Mumbai politics for two decades.
In return, the dabbawalas provide a loyal voting bloc. The dabbawalas have also become the subject of Indian academic inquiry. Dr Pawan G Agrawal is not a medical practitioner. He owes the Dr in front of his name to the PhD he earned studying how the dabbawalas operate.
With a TED talk to his name, Agrawal is now a regular on the lecture circuit, coaching multinationals in the theory and practice of dabbawala logistics. He travelled with us in the luggage compartment.
Outside on the street, boys are playing cricket. Inside, the office is so fiercely air-conditioned that the heavily sugared chai brought to guests is cold by the time it arrives. Agrawal sits behind his desk, arms outstretched in a welcoming gesture. He hands over his card, which lists, in addition to his PhD, so many qualifications and awards that it is concertinaed into three sections to accommodate them all. A shelf behind him is crammed with plaques.
Agrawal has a neat, pencil-thin moustache, a round face and an infectious smile. There is something of a Dickensian character about him. Asked to explain the essence of the dabbawala system, he slips into a minute monologue, broken only when he stands up — first to put on a Gandhi cap by way of a prop and later to slam two tiffin tins on the table ditto.
What can we learn from them? Time management. I am delivering. I get the message my father is dying. I will not immediately rush out. I will adjust my job, adjust my tiffin. In his book, Masters of Supply Chain Management , Agrawal says the dabbawala service began in when a Parsi banker employed a young man from near Pune to deliver a lunchbox from his home to his Mumbai office.
Slowly the service expanded and more dabbawalas were recruited from villages near Pune. The dabbawalas traced their ancestry to soldiers who fought alongside the 17th-century warrior king Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, founder of the Maratha empire. For many in modern-day Maharashtra, Shivaji is still remembered as a defender of Hinduism against Mughal invasion, a legacy that resonates in the religiously charged and sometimes violent politics of Mumbai.
That is one reason the dabbawalas support Shiv Sena, a party that backs Marathi rights against what they present as the onslaught of migrants from other parts of India.
For the dabbawalas, Shivaji is a source of pride but also a reminder of how far they have fallen. Our elders used to carry swords in the name of Shivaji. Customers of the dabbawalas almost universally praise the service. Reema Kothari, who has used dabbawalas to deliver a lunchbox to her financier husband for 20 years, says her tiffin went missing once.
Even once in 20 years would be one error per roughly 12, deliveries. Agrawal is unmoved. He even ups the ante by quoting a different figure: one mistake per 16 million, and then reaches his definitive conclusion. Because error is horror. He pauses to let his words hover in the air. Like the Harvard Business Review, Agrawal emphasises community. So people are important. Because they are from the same community, this is good. Many children of dabbawalas follow their parents into the business, making it something of a professional caste.
Mumbai Dabbawala: Customer Service Excellence of Six Sigma QualityWithout Technology
David Pilling and Avantika Chilkoti. On the lurid-red crate, fenced in by a metal rim, are 30 or so silver tins, sides dented and lids clattering under the strain of the ascent. Kedari, now 47, has been a dabbawala for more than three decades. Organised in a co-operative, they enjoy job security and command respect in this toughest of Indian cities. Kedari started skipping school before he was Mostly, he played around in the fields where his parents cultivated a subsistence-sized plot of rice, millet and onions.
Mumbai’s Models of Service Excellence
An adapted version of the speech is presented here. The food is cooked at home. Tiffin is yours. They [dabbawalas] will simply deliver it from your home to your workplace before lunch time and deliver the empty tiffin box back in the evening at your home as well. Why would you want dabbawala to carry your tiffin? There are two reasons. One is that the Mumbai local trains have lines extending km and two, they are crowded.