DABBAWALAS OF MUMBAI

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DABBAWALAS OF MUMBAI

The thought of a home-cooked meal always warms the cockles of our hearts. It is comforting, satisfying and simply the best. Especially during a tiring day at work. While many of us are fortunate enough to have this privilege, it is next to impossible in a fast-paced city like Mumbai. With people starting their day as early as 5 am and having to travel a long distance for work, that too in crowded trains, carrying a packed lunch seems too daunting a task. This is where the Mumbai Dabbawalas come into the picture. Dressed simply in traditional white outfits with Gandhi caps they are the true messiah delivering home-cooked food to Mumbaikar from home to office daily.

It all started nearly 125 years ago, with a Parsi banker working in Mumbai who wanted to have home-cooked food in his office. So he appointed a young man from Gurgaon to get his lunch from his home every afternoon. It is how the job of the 1st Dabbawala emerged. Now they are a strong army of nearly 5,000 people who ensure that 2,00,000 people get their lunch on time at their offices. Thus was the launch of the “Dabba Delivery System” in Mumbai.

Each day they deliver more than 1,30,000 lunch boxes all over Mumbai. It means nearly 2,60,000 transactions are being done for almost 6 hours every day, six days a week, and 52 weeks a year, without a single mistake. Surprisingly, the dabbawalas have achieved this level of performance without using any digital or IT platform or even mobile phones, which is unheard of during present times. There is a lot that can be learnt from the work ethics of the Dabbawalas. They do not consume alcohol or smoke during work hours as it affects their efficiency. Perhaps this is the only organization that does not go on strikes too, as they know their customer will end up without food. As most of the Dabbawalas are not well educated, sometimes even illiterate, they use a simple coding system that is easy to understand and implement. They use an array of signs, numbers, alphabet, symbols, and colours to represent various parameters such as origin, destination, route, building, floor, the person responsible for delivery, etc.

The dabbawala’s operations require delivery people with cycles and handcarts to travel between the railway stations and customers’ offices and homes. Every day, a Dabba reaches its destination after passing through several hands. In the morning, a Dabbawala picks it up from the customer’s home and goes to the nearest railway station. Then, it is sorted and put on a wooden cart as per its destination. Once it reaches the nearest station, it is sorted and assigned to another dabbawala, who delivers it to the office before lunchtime. After lunchtime is over, the process runs the other way around, and the Dabba reaches the customer’s home. To successfully carry this out, they follow a “coding system.”

The lids of the dabbas are labelled with numbers, letters, and symbols indicating where they came from and where they should be delivered. Their simple system is so flawless that Harvard Business School rated it “Six Sigma”. During 120 years of service, very rarely has the lunchbox been delivered late. The dabbawalas have made less than 3.4 errors per million transactions. Now that is efficiency! They were even invited to some prestigious Business schools to give lectures on their strategies.

Teamwork, honesty, discipline, ownership, time management, low cost, customer satisfaction, service commitment, process consistency, etc. are the strengths of this system. But its system depends on Mumbai’s local train service, one of the most complex, vast, and mainly used urban commuter lines worldwide, there is a risk if something affects the train services. The stories of dabbawalas were documented by UTV, BBC, ZEE TV, and MTV and they have secured a World record in time management.

The COVID-19 Pandemic has dealt a cruel blow to these men in white. Thousands of dabbawalas retreated to their original homes in rural locations as the virus raged across Mumbai, a city of over 20 million people, crippling the century-old food supply chain. Some of them were surviving on state rations and charities. But from January 2022, things have started looking better.

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Ms Suphala Kamath
Second Year B Ed, St Aloysius Institute of Education, Kodialbail, Mangaluru


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