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Mumbai's dabbawallahs, flavour of the season

Nandini Lakshman | November 15, 2003

Sprawled in one of their Spartan association offices near south Mumbai's Grant Road station, the dabbawallahs or tiffin carriers of Mumbai, dressed in their trademark white shirt and pyjama and a white Gandhi cap, are chilling out for a couple of hours before they get back to work.

But one things for sure: they are surely basking in the attention pouring from all quarters.

Last week, Britain's Prince Charles' meeting with the dabbawallahs on his India visit turned the spotlight once again on Mumbai's 5,000 dabbawallahs who ferry 175,000 lunch boxes to and fro five days a week to offices and schools across the length and breadth of Mumbai.

Ever since management guru C K Prahlad hailed Mumbai's ubiquitous dabbawallah as the quintessential master of supply chain management, inviting Raghunath Medge, the swashbuckling president of the Dabbawallah Association to share the dais at a Confederation of Indian Industry function in Bangalore four years ago, there's been no looking back.

Since then, the way they operate, with just one error in 16 million transactions, has become a favourite case study at many an Indian business school.

Their modus operandi too has been well documented by the likes of BBC and Dutch and German film makers.

But now, there's more to come. Corporates are falling over each other to invite them for lectures. People who have shown interest in their functioning want the dabbawallahs to step out of Mumbai and replicate the supply chain in Delhi and Bangalore.

US Ivy League college Yale is said to be planning a case study on this motley tribe.

"The Prince's coming here has made us the flavour of the season," says the savvy Medge who is also a tiffin box contractor and runs a travel agency.

Sure, Medge is in demand as he organises his forthcoming schedule. Over the next two months, there are presentations to be made at the Indian Institute of Management, Lucknow and Bangalore.

Negotiations are also underway with Mico in Nashik to set up a supply chain system. Also, the dabbawallahs are putting systems in place for offices on the land acquired by the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation.

But the big question is: even as corporate India is quick to call Medge for seminars why hasn't it shown any interest in jumping into the business?

Moreover, for all their efficiency, why haven't the dabbawallahs been able to transport their expertise outside Mumbai city?

Although Medge says there have been requests to replicate it in other cities, the hurdles are too great.

"With no proper cheap local transport system in other cities, it is difficult. Our people move by local trains and are able to cover longer distances. By cycle, one can only cover a radius of two to three kilometers," he adds.

On an average, a dabbawallah who is like an entrepreneur covers 70 km to 80 km in two-and-a-half hours. Every station on Mumbai's western, central and harbour Railway lines has two groups ranging between 15 to 40 people.

"All of us are entrepreneurs who come together to deliver as a whole. We work exactly like the post office with hub and spoke operations," says the 63-year old Jairaj Surve.

The meals picked up from clients by 9-9.30 am are brought to the closest railway station. Numbers and symbols painted on the aluminium cases help to sort out the dabbas according to the destination station.

Over the next hour, they are loaded in trains and taken to their destinations, where they are once again sorted out on the basis of office, street and floor.

Even as the dabba is picked up from a client's home and delivered by one person, it is delivered and picked up from the workplace by another person.

"There are four of us in between," says a dabbawallah.

"There is nothing new in the supply chain model that the dabbawallahs are using. It is a lot like the courier companies," says a logistics expert.

So why haven't the courier companies made a go at this business? That's because, unlike courier companies which are not hindered by the quantum of letters or packages delivered by a person a day, a dabbawallah has his limitations, reveals a salesman in Elbee Couriers.

The maximum load that a dabbawallah handles a day is 25 to 35 dabbas which snuggle in 100 kg crates.

According to logistics consultant Ranga Kota, who was earlier with logistics major AFL, if logistics companies and other corporates haven't yet got into it, it is because while they hailed the dabbawallah's expertise, they didn't really know how they went about their jobs.

"Now that they know, it is not economically viable," he adds.

Look at the costs. A client pays anywhere from Rs 150 to Rs 250 a month to his dabbawallah. Of this, he pays Rs 15 to the association, Rs 60 for a crate and Rs 120 to the railways.

"On an average, the balance we take home is from Rs 3,500 to Rs 4,000," reveals a dabbawallah. The association, which has a corpus of Rs 50,000, doles out cash to the needy whenever the need arises.

"They become shareholders of the association by paying Rs 15 but some don't even pay and we don't mind," says Medge. The association acts as a watchdog and helps out with substitutes when dabbawallahs have to go on leave.

"The corporates are not interested in such small stakes," says the head of a small logistics company. He claims that even the dabbawallahs for all their efficiency have only a Mumbai presence. "Corporates want a national footprint," says a marketing consultant.

Clearly, the dabbawallahs have survived for over a century, as they've had no competition. But Medge says the market is plateauing. The Association's headcount of 5,000 hasn't changed for a decade, and the average age appears to be around 55 years.

"The second generation does not want to get into this business as the returns are not much," laments a dabbawallah.

Moreover, food habits of consumers are fast changing. Long hours at work means that keeping a dabba ready by 9 am is a Herculean task.

Then many offices offer lunch coupons. And double income working families dispense with regular cooking for a dry lunch at the workplace.

Says Kota, "The dabbawallah as an institution is gradually dying. It will be extinct in the next 15 years." But Medge is optimistic.

"How can it be? Sure, some clients may move away, but children will continue to go to school and people to offices. As long as people feel hungry, the dabbawallah will be there," he says.

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Number of User Comments: 1

Sub: Great Example

Where else in the world can you find such commitment & accuracy at work other than Mumbai ??? These dabbawalahs have set an example for ...

Posted by Srinath


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