Mid-morning on a working day in Mumbai. A group of men wearing Gandhi-caps, carrying disproportionately large crates of aluminium containers are hurtling in your direction. You'd better step off their path. These Dabbawalas sure have business to attend to.
It wouldn't be fallacy to say that there are two lifelines in the city of Mumbai. One is the suburban train network that ferries people efficiently in this rather odd-shaped city. The other is the city's aforementioned dabbawalas (dabba=container, wala=man) who ensure that people at work get to eat a home-cooked lunch every day.
Dabbawalas (or Tiffinwalas as they are also called), are people who are in the business of picking up and delivering lunches in workplaces. The need for this is simple. The office-goers in Mumbai have long commutes and they normally leave too early in the morning to carry lunch. Eating out is an avoidable expense when the option of a dabbawala exists for a mere Rs. 300 a month. It's a small price to pay for the comfort of eating food of choice cooked hygienically in one's own home.
The delivery process works something like this. After you leave for work, the dabbawala picks up a packed dabba from your home, and transports it to you at work just in time for lunch. In the afternoon, the reverse process takes place. By the time you're back home in the evening, your dabba is already there.
On the face of it, it's a rather simple pick-up and drop-off. But in Mumbai, this delivery mechanism assumes a complexity that boggles the mind. About 4500 dabbawalas deliver over 175,000 lunches every day in the city of Mumbai. That's approximately 40 containers per dabbawala. The dabbawalas who service a locality, aggregate containers at the suburban train station and then sort them by destination based on codes inscribed on each container. These containers are then transported by train to the station nearest the destination, then the container is delivered to the customer by foot, bicycle or carts just in time for lunch. The container changes hands as many as three times in one delivery. What's the error factor? Only one mistake in every 6,000,000 deliveries. Every delivery is a true feat in supply chain management.
The dabbawalas have an association - Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust - where every dabbawala is regarded as a shareholder. Hence, he has a stake in the success of the organization. No wonder there are no strikes. Internally, there are only three layers of hierarchy. They all know each other as they hail from the same region of Maharashtra. The organization has recently gone hi-tech with the launch of a website and sms booking facility. However, that's where the reach of technology ends. After all, why introduce technology when the actual process works so efficiently? Every delivery is a true feat in supply chain management.
It's this high level of efficiency in this highly specialized trade that has earned the dabbawalas a Six Sigma Certification from the Forbes group. The processes have also garnered interest in business schools and organizations both in India and outside. Advertisers and marketers use dabbawalas to distribute information and products thereby also contributing to the average dabbawala's income. The story also goes that when Prince Charles and Richard Branson wanted to observe the process, they had to align their schedules to that of the dabbawalas.
At the end of the day, the dabbawala is a triumph of the entrepreneurial spirit and a much-loved Mumbai institution. Not bad for an organization where 85% of its members are illiterate.
Pic by author
An edited version of this article was published in the October 2007 issue of At A Glance.