India // Mumbai //



Mumbai’s size and inconvenient shape create all kind of hassles for its working population – not least having to stew for over four hours each day in slow municipal transport. One thing the daily tidal wave of commuters does not have to worry about, however, is where to find an inexpensive and wholesome home-cooked lunch. In a city with a wallah for everything, it will find them. The members of the Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust (NMTSCT), known colloquially, and with no little affection, as “dabawallahs”, see to that. Every day, around 4500 to 5000 dabawallahs deliver freshly cooked meals from 175,000 to 200,000 suburban kitchens to offices in the downtown area. Each lunch is prepared early in the morning by a devoted wife or mother while her husband or son is enduring the crush on the train. She arranges the rice, dhal, subzi, curd and parathas into cylindrical aluminium trays, stacks them on top of one another and clips them together with a neat little handle.

This tiffin box, not unlike a slim paint tin, is the lynchpin of the whole operation. When the runner calls to collect it in the morning, he uses a special colour code on the lid to tell him where the lunch has to go. At the end of his round, he carries all the boxes to the nearest railway station and hands them over to other dabawallahs for the trip into town. Between leaving the wife and reaching its final destination, the tiffin box will pass through at least half a dozen different pairs of hands, carried on heads, shoulder-poles, bicycle handlebars and in the brightly decorated handcarts that plough with such insouciance through the midday traffic. Tins are rarely, if ever, lost – a fact recently reinforced by the American business magazine, Forbes, which awarded Mumbai’s dabawallahs a 6-Sigma performance rating, the score reserved for companies that attain a 99.9 percentage of correctness. This means that only one tiffin box in 6 million goes astray, in efficiency terms putting the illiterate dabawallahs on a par with bluechip firms such as Motorola.

To catch them in action, head for CST (VT) or Churchgate stations around late morning, when the tiffin boxes arrive in the city centre. The event is accompanied by a chorus of “lafka! lafka!” – “hurry! hurry!” – as the dabawallahs, recognizable in their white Nehru caps and baggy pyjama trousers, rush to make their lunch-hour deadlines. Nearly all come from the same small village near Pune and are related to one another. They collect around Rs350–400 from each customer, or Rs5000–6000 per month in total – not a bad income by Indian standards. One of the reasons the system survives in the face of competition from trendy fast-food outlets is that daba lunches still work out a good deal cheaper, saving precious rupees for the middle-income workers who use the system.

Business leaders who have taken more than a passing interest in the dabawallah phenomenon include Sir Richard Branson: the Virgin tycoon spent a day accompanying a tiffin carrier on his round. If you’d like to do the same, contact the NMTSCT via its website, w, and look for the link to their “Day With a Dabbawala” scheme.

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