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Dabbawallahs: Mumbai's best managed business

Amberish K Diwanji | November 04, 2003 18:28 IST
Last Updated: November 04, 2003 18:39 IST

Prince Charles is not the first person to show an interest in the dabbawallahs of Mumbai. In fact, the first time they actually shot to international fame was when his compatriots at the BBC did a documentary on them way back in the late 70s.

But it was in the 1990s, when management lexicon became a part of daily life, that the interest in Dabbawallahs, now synonymous with Mumbai's blurringly fast life, grew.

Also see: Prince meets Mumbai's dabbawallahs

Today, they are feted regularly and invited to lecture students of business management. Corporate chiefs applaud them, management gurus use them as a models.

Raghunath Medge, president, Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust, who met Prince Charles on Tuesday, will be in Lucknow in January to address the students of the prestigious Indian Institute of Management. And, in between, some management students will be spending time with him.

So what makes the dabbawallahs so unique? And how do they work?

At the simplest, the dabbawallahs deliver home-cooked meals to individuals at their workplaces and return empty tiffin boxes to homes and, in some cases, caterers.

For this, they charge Rs 300 to Rs 350, that is $ 6-7, a month.

The workforce of the tiffin box suppliers trust, the cooperative body that runs the system, is 5,000. Each tiffin box contains two or three containers, often carrying traditional Indian fare -- rice, curry, chapattis, and vegetables.

Housewives even send notes to their hubbies in these boxes.

The process begins early in the morning. Cooked food is picked up from houses and caterers by dabbawallahs and taken to the nearest railway station. There, the different tiffin boxes are sorted out for specific destination stations and loaded on to large, rectangular trays accordingly.

Each tray can hold up to 40 boxes. These trays then travel in local trains down to variosu stations. At each station, there are another set of dabbawallahs who quickly take the dabbas meant to be distributed in that area and push in dabbas meant for other stations.
A Mumbai local halts at a station for about 20 seconds or less and thus, the dabbawallahs have to work with precision and speed. During rush hour, it's a nightmare. Ask anyone who has done time on Mumbai locals.

At each station, the boxes are once more sorted for localities and offices and taken there by handcarts or sometimes carried by individuals. "We carry up to 35 kg for distances of a couple of  kilometers," points out Medge.

The boxes are placed in the offices' reception area by 12.30 pm and are picked up from the same spot by the deliverer a couple of hours later.

The whole process then starts again in the reverse. The boxes are picked up from the offices, taken to the nearest station and sorted for their journey home.

Forbes magazine gave this service its highest quality rating of Sigma 6, which means that per million transactions, there is just an error of one.

The service runs every working day.

"Every day, we deliver 175,000 to 200,000 lunch boxes," said Medge. "We use colours and code markings to ensure faultless delivery."

These codes would baffle a cryptographer! But they make perfect sense to the dabbawallahs. The codes and colours indicate the place from where a dabba is collected; the station where it must be unloaded and the office it is to be delivered.

Explaining one part of the code, Medge said they use English alphabets to mark out stations -- such as A for Andheri and Bo for Borivli.

The men who form part of the organisation are not employees. "If you have employees, then you have unions and strikes," said Medge, revealing his deep business acumen. "We are all shareholders in the Trust and we thus share in the earnings."

On an average, a dabbawallah can make about Rs 3,000 to 5,000. The Trust provides several services to its members, including schools for the children and health care in emergencies.

What makes the dabbawallahs an extremely tight-knit group is that they all hail from the same region, Pune district in Maharashtra. "We all come from the region east of the Sahyadri [Western Ghats], and everyone who joins us is known to us," said Medge.

"If an outsider does join in, we initially employ him on a fixed salary, and if in a couple of years he wins our trust, we may make him a shareholder," added Medge.

Only a handful of the Trust members are not from the Pune region and most of them are related to each other. They all share similar customs and traditions and worship Vithoba of Pandharpur.

"In fact, today is Prabhodini Ekadashi, when yatras (pilgrimages) to Pandharpur are made. So all our members will be fasting today," Medge explained.

Yet, while Vithoba is their presiding deity, their success is linked to the Mumbai suburban train network. On those odd days when the railways ground to a halt, the dabbas are not delivered.

But then, if Mumbai's locals aren't running, most Mumbaiites won't reach their offices.

Why have they not tried a similar service in other cities?

"Mumbai's geography makes it unique," Medge points out. "It is a longish city where residences are in the north and offices in the south, so it makes our work simple. We tried a similar service in Delhi a few years ago and it didn't work out; Delhi being a circular city, the logistics were difficult."

The dabbawallah service began way back in 1890, when Mumbai was a much smaller city. "At that time, migration of workers to the city had just begun and they wanted home-made food at their workplaces. Mumbai is a city with people from all over India, but the South Indians want their food, while the Gujaratis want their food. Our service began to fill this growing need," said Medge.

Today, the service delivers not just homemade food but also picks up food from caterers and delivers them to offices. But Medge said that food from caterers are still a small segment of the total operation. "Most people want to eat homemade food in the offices," he said.

As long as the dabbawallah service is there, Mumbaikars alone in the world would have the option of eating homemade food in office without the bother of having to carry a cumbersome lunchbox.


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