A summary – ‘Dabbawalas: Mumbai’s lunchbox carriers’

chs stats 2Most visitors to the site last week were from India, understandably, but closely following were United States viewers – expats?

The most sought-after items are cultural rather than topical/political, so we direct readers to a very long article in the Financial Times: ‘Dabbawalas: Mumbai’s lunchbox carriers’, by David Pilling and Avantika Chilkoti.

To read it in full and see the array of photographs, go to http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/f3b3cbca-362c-11e5-b05b-b01debd57852.html. Though a subscription site, this link appears to give access to all.

Describing a procedure well-known to most readers, the FT article focusses on Dashrat Kedari, with his 7ft-long wooden crate on which, fenced in by a metal rim, are 30 or so silver tins, as he climbs the stone steps of Mumbai’s Santacruz station among the press of people in the rising morning heat.

Photograph: Nishant Shukla

Photograph: Nishant Shukla

Kedari is one of 5,000 lunchbox carriers who keep the office workers of Mumbai supplied with home-cooked food. “My brother did it, that’s why I did it,” he adds of his eventual graduation, aged 16, to the profession. “This job makes me feel good. Feeding people is a worthwhile occupation.”

Organised as a co-operative, they earn a decent wage of some Rs12,000, or $200, a month, enjoy job security and command respect.

The dabbawalas conduct some 260,000 transactions daily — 130,000 boxes are delivered to offices every morning and 130,000 are returned home every afternoon — six days a week, 51 weeks a year. A Harvard Business Review study honed in on four factors: 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). Pilling adds that the dabbawala system could not function if Mumbai’s extensive train network did not work, as it does, to a high level of efficiency. It is also aided by the city’s linear layout.

After an account of Kedari’s day the varied diets delivered are mentioned:

  • Parsis, descendants of Zoroastrians from Iran and
  • Gujaratis from the neighbouring state have distinctive cuisines.
  • There are Hindus who don’t eat beef,
  • and Muslims who don’t touch pork.
  • The strict diet of Jains excludes onions, potatoes and garlic.

Although the dabbawalas work in units of about 20, they regularly shuffle boxes between teams and, rather like Toyota’s legendary assembly-line workers, tweak things in the interests of efficiency. “We do it every day,” Kedari explains. “We recognise each other and know where each of us is heading.”

The lid of each dabba is marked with a code combining numbers, letters and colours, a system for identifying the delivery address that has evolved because many of the dabbawalas can’t read. They sort the tins into batches according to their codes. At Lower Parel, the tiffins are unloaded on to push bikes, which are waiting for them, unattended — the dabbawalas say their system relies on the trust and respect of Mumbai’s residents.

Dr Pawan G Agrawal, whose father and grandfather were dabbawalas, earned his PhD studying how the dabbawalas operate. His 2010 thesis, supervised by the Yashwantrao Chavan Maharashtra Open University, is entitled “A Study of Logistics and Supply Chain Management of Dabbawala in Mumbai”. Dr Agrawal is based in the Agrawal Institute of Management & Technology in Vikhroli. Although dabbawalas are unique to Mumbai, Agrawal says they have much to teach other businesses.

Agrawal is now a regular on the lecture circuit, coaching multinationals in the theory and practice of dabbawala logistics from Microsoft and Tata Consultancy to Capgemini. He introduced the dabbawalas to Virgin’s boss, Sir Richard Branson: “I was two days with him. He travelled with us in the luggage compartment.”

In his book, Masters of Supply Chain Management, Agrawal says the dabbawala service began in 1890 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.

Like the Harvard Business Review, Agrawal emphasises community. “If the people are not good, the system can collapse. So people are important. Because they are from the same community, this is good.”

One question the dabbawalas struggle with is whether their business can survive the onslaught of modernity.

More women work and so are not at home to prepare food for their husbands. People eat out more. The emerging middle classes order takeaways. The dabbawalas have mostly stayed with their 125-year-old model. “New technology is for the literate,” says Medge. “We dabbawalas don’t know much about technology.”

Rishi Khiani, a serial entrepreneur, who recently acquired a company called Meals on Wheels, employs deliverymen who will earn slightly more than dabbawalas and are armed with Android devices and an app that allows customers to follow their orders on their smartphones. But Khiani reckons that the dabbawalas can adapt and survive. So cost-effective are they that, although Khiani is launching a rival (but smaller) delivery service, his business will use the dabbawalas’ network.

Khiani reckons that the dabbawalas can adapt and survive. So cost-effective are they that, although Khiani is launching a rival (but smaller) delivery service, his business will use the dabbawalas’ network.

The dabbawalas have tried to adapt in other ways: they sometimes deliver fliers or samples for companies, including multinationals such as PepsiCo. In April, Flipkart, India’s Amazon equivalent, announced a tie-up with the dabbawalas for the delivery of books, toys and other items.

Dabbawalas are such a familiar sight that the security guard doesn’t even bother to look up as Kedari goes up to the third floor, drops off some boxes and then goes up to the seventh, where he delivers one more.

Kedari strolls through some of the best addresses in Mumbai as if he owns the place, delivering the dabbas right to the secretary’s desk, or leaving them outside in the corridor. In all, he makes about a dozen stops. A few hours later, he will return to pick up the empty dabbas ready for the return journey. At around 3pm, he finally has the chance to eat his own tiffin, prepared by his wife that morning. “By the time I get mine,” he says with a shrug, “it’s cold.”

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