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'The raja of England will meet us'
Vijay Singh in Mumbai | October 30, 2003 00:43 IST
Last Updated: October 30, 2003 21:51 IST
For them he is the raja of England. And the dabbawalas of Mumbai are pleased as punch, as the Poms would put, at getting to meet Prince Charles, who will be in the metropolis from November 3 to 5 as part of his nine-day tour of India.
But ask them more about the raja and they are left fumbling for words.
The dabbawalas, who have a tradition running back more than 100 years, have survived the onslaught of five-star hotels, fast food frenzy, and over-the-counter culture.
Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust president Raghunath Medge told rediff.com: "We are all excited because he is a raja of England. His country started many new things in India. The raja of such a country coming to meet us is really a dream."
But while they are happy and eager to meet the prince, they don't want their business to suffer. So it will be work as usual for them when the prince visits them. Prince Charles will be meeting 70 to 80 suppliers in front of Churchgate station in south Mumbai.
Later, six members of the trust, including Mende, will give the prince a guided tour of their establishment and explain their business to him.
"We are very happy because the person who is coming to meet us is so popular," Medge said. "We want to make the meeting memorable by giving him a dabba-shaped trophy."
The dabbawalas came into existence in 1890 and are a lifeline for many in the metropolis. Supplying homemade food to offices generates much of their business.
There are close to 5,000 dabbawalas operating in the city supplying 2,00,000 dabbas (tiffin boxes) every day. Most of the dabbawalas are from Pune district.
With an interesting colour-coding scheme, comprehensible even to illiterates, the dabbawalas manage to reach out to the length and breadth of the city, seldom faltering.
An employee drops the lunch boxes (known as tiffins), collected individually from homes, at the nearest railway station. From there the boxes go through a series of complex but well worked out transport systems, including trains, bicycles and wooden carriers, passing through multiple hands, before finally landing at the customer's table at his office.
"The system is similar to the postal system," Medge explained. "The tiffins are collected, sorted out, and sent to their destinations based on a numerical and alphabetical code. Every station has a numerical code and each place has an alphabetical code. The tiffin carries the code of the source and the destination. The codes help us to identify each tiffin owner."
The codes have been developed over the years, beginning with coloured threads and evolving to more systematic and logical codes, he said. "Our system being foolproof, we have no major competitors in the market," Medge said.
Whether it is the manager of a bank, a computer engineer, or a ten-year-old waiting for piping hot puris in school, the dabbawalas cater to all. The only hindrance, said Medge, could be a railway strike.
"We have made all our employees shareholders to solve our labour problems and to ensure that every person feels that they are an equal participant in the food service business," he added.
But the dabbawalas have their share of peeves. They complain that despite having a 110 year history, the government has done nothing for them. They want those in power to help them out by arranging special transportation facilities that will make their work easier.
The clockwork precision and efficient management practices the dabbawalas have evolved are often presented as a case study in various management schools. In fact, the dabbawalas have made a presentation to students of the prestigious Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad.
The British consulate, meanwhile, is busy arranging for security for the visiting prince.
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