The Mumbai Dabbawallas

dabbawalla(Source: Wikipedia)

A dabbawala; also spelled as dabbawalla or dabbawallah; literally meaning “box person”, is a person in India, most commonly in Mumbai, who collects freshly cooked food in lunch boxes from the residences of mostly-suburban office workers, delivering it to their respective workplaces and returning the empty boxes back to the customer’s residence by using various modes of transport.

The word “dabbawala” in Marathi when literally translated, means “one who carries a box”. “Dabba” means a box (usually a cylindrical tin or aluminium container), while “wala” is a suffix, denoting a doer or holder of the preceding word. The closest meaning of the dabbawala in English would be the “lunch box delivery man”. Though this profession seems to be simple, it is actually a highly specialized service in Mumbai which is over a century old and has become integral to the cultural life of this city.

The Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Trust

This service originated in 1880. In 1890, Mahadeo Havaji Bachche and Ananth Mandra Reddy started a lunch delivery service with about a hundred men. In 1930, he informally attempted to unionise the dabbawallas. 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 Supplier’s Association”. The current president of the association is Raghunath Medge.

Instead of going home for lunch or paying for a meal, many office workers have a cooked meal sent from their home, or sometimes from a caterer who cooks and delivers the meal in lunch boxes and then have the empty lunch boxes collected and re-sent the same day. This is usually done for a monthly fee of about 450 Indian rupees. 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 either from a worker’s home or from the dabba makers. As many of the carriers are illiterate, the dabbas have some sort of distinguishing mark on them, such as a colour or group of symbols.

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 railway station to unload the boxes and the destination building delivery address.

Dabbawalas mumbaiAt 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 service is almost always uninterrupted, even on the days of severe weather such as monsoons. The local dabbawalas and population know each other well, and often form bonds of trust. Dabbawalas are generally well accustomed to the local areas they cater to, and use shortcuts and other low profile routes to deliver their goods on time.

Occasionally, people communicate between home and work by putting messages inside the boxes; however, with the rise of instant communication such as SMS and instant messaging, this trend is vanishing. Since 1890, when the dabbawalas formally came into existence, none of them had ever gone on strike until 2011 when the members decided to head towards Azad Maidan to support Anna Hazare in his campaign against corruption.

In 1998, Forbes Magazine found its reliability to be that of a six sigma standard. This implies that the dabbawalas make less than one mistake in every six million deliveries. Between 175,000 and 200,000 lunch boxes are moved by 4,500 to 5,000 dabbawalas, all with an extremely small nominal fee and with utmost punctuality.

The BBC has produced a documentary on dabbawalas and Prince Charles visited them during his visit to India; he had to fit in with their schedule, since their timing was too precise to permit any flexibility. Charles also invited them to his wedding with Camilla Parker Bowles in London on 9 April 2005. Owing to the tremendous publicity, some of the dabbawalas were invited to give guest lectures in some of the top business schools of India, which is very unusual. Most remarkably in the eyes of many Westerners, the success of the dabbawala trade has involved no advanced technology, except for the Mumbai suburban local trains.

The New York Times reported in 2007 that the 125-year-old dabbawala industry continues to grow at a rate of 5–10% per year.

The Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Trust is ISO 9001:2000 certified by the Joint Accreditation System of Australia and New Zealand.



The Mumbai Dabbawallas have started a new Initiative – “SHARE MY DABBA – A SMALL STICKER CAN MAKE A BIG DIFFERENCE”. You can now not only enjoy your lunch, but also get a chance to share that joy with someone less fortunate. “Share My Dabba” is an initiative to get food left over in dabbas to hungry street children, using just a tiny Share sticker and the extensive dabbawala network. Please do watch the video below on this update.

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