Before the COVID-19 pandemic swept through Mumbai, it was a familiar scene to watch men clad in a white outfit and a Gandhi cap lugging lunch boxes, or dabbas, across the teeming streets of the city. These men, called dabbawalas (literally translated to "one who carry the dabbas"), are the lifeline of a critical food delivery system for the bustling metropolis.
Dabbawalas deliver home-cooked meals to Mumbaikars working at government offices, companies, and factories. Every morning, a dabbawala collects several dabbas from home kitchens across the city and pedals to the nearest train station on a bicycle. On any given day, the dabbas change hands multiple times; the dabbawala who first collects the lunch is unlikely to make the delivery to its final destination. The lunches are sorted, loaded into a train, and taken to various regions across Mumbai. The dabbawalas ensure each dabba is promptly dropped at the client's workplace on a hand cart just before lunchtime. Codes, numbers, and letters marked on the dabbas in various colors determine the pickup point, delivery point, and the dabbawala's name. With zero technology usage (except for Mumbai's train network), the dabbawalas' highly dependable, low-cost system runs on the principles of efficiency, coordination, availability, and timeliness.
A 2010 study conducted by Harvard Business School resulted in a Six Sigma efficiency rating awarded to the exemplary model of the dabbawalas. It means that even semi-literate dabbawalas commit fewer than 3.4 mistakes for every million transactions. This commendable system has intrigued many, from Dutch Queen Maxima to Richard Branson, so much so that they spent time with the dabbawalas to understand their working model. Prince Charles was another public figure intrigued by the system after watching a BBC documentary; following his visit to Mumbai in 2003, the dabbawalas received an invitation from the Prince of Wales to attend his wedding with Camilla Parker Bowles in 2005, which was attended by two couriers.
The earliest recorded history of the dabbawalas dates to 1890, when a Parsi banker wanted his lunch delivered to his office in Ballard Pier in Mumbai. The banker roped in Havji Madhu Bacche, a migrant in Mumbai, to deliver the meal. Over time, as the city's home cooks started to prepare food for working people, meals began to be delivered by the many migrant workers living in Mumbai. This resulted in a growing fleet of dabbawalas for the next 130 years.
Prior to the pandemic, come rain or shine, an army of 5000 dabbawalas delivered home-cooked meals daily to 200,000 Mumbaikars. While calamities such as floods, communal riots, and terror attacks did not deter them, when COVID-19 hit India last year, it threw a spanner in their works. The lockdown announced in the country in late March meant no citywide travel. People resorted to working from home, and the demand for dabbas — and therefore, dabbawalas — dwindled. The government also imposed restrictions on travel by train — the backbone of Mumbai's economy and the dabbawalas' primary mode of transport.
This unprecedented event resulted in a huge loss of livelihood for the group. Most returned to their hometowns and took up farming instead. Those who stayed in the city resorted to working as drivers or security for gated communities, or began selling vegetables to make ends meet. "Many had to pawn jewelry or take a loan to have two square meals in a day," says dabbawala Shashikant Gaikar, over the phone from Mumbai. Without any financial support from the government, it became difficult for Gaikar and his cohort to manage regular expenses like house rent, electricity bills, and school fees.
In October of 2020, when the megalopolitan started to re-open, some dabbawalas returned to work. Just when things began to look up, the second deadly COVID-19 wave hit, bringing India to its knees. The country went into lockdown again.
"From October until now [summer 2021], between 300 to 500 dabbawalas are delivering dabbas in the city," says Ritesh Shantaram Andre, a spokesperson for Mumbai Dabbawala. Today, their workforce has been reduced to 10% of its original size. "Since trains aren't running, I have no choice but to deliver meals on my motorcycle," says Gaikar. When business was better, each dabbawala would deliver 35 to 40 dabbas a day, earning about $240 USD a month — still significantly less than India's average monthly wage of $437. At this point, their clientele is restricted to government office employees, doctors, nurses, COVID-19 patients in hospitals, those who may have been exposed to the virus and are home-quarantined, or those infected and separated from others through home-isolation. "Now I have only about ten dabbas to deliver, and I also have to take on the fuel cost, which amounts to $50 a month," he laments. In the pre-COVID era, the train fare would cost him just $8 a month.
With changing times, however, a few have embraced creativity, and collaborated with restaurants to deliver food to customers. "Bringing the dabbawalas on board as our delivery partners is the perfect example of aligning synergies and forging ahead through meaningful collaborations," says Mayank Bhatt, Business Head of Social, a restaurant that is part of the Impresario Handmade Restaurants umbrella. The dabbawalas have been trained to use the restaurant group's tech-enabled platform to get notified about orders and delivery locations. Today, seven restaurants in Mumbai under the Impresario group use the services of dabbawalas in this first-of-its-kind pilot project in food delivery. Although unwilling to divulge the exact number of dabbawalas currently working for them, Bhatt said "We are servicing between 600 to 1,000 deliveries daily via the dabbawalas."
The Mumbai dabbawalas are trying to evolve with changing times. "In the last few months we have received calls from Mumbaikars working from home, asking if we can prepare and deliver food," says Andre. "So we are working on a cloud kitchen to prepare food that will be delivered by the dabbawalas to homes or offices as per the customer's request. The idea is to generate income and diversify." Customers have the option to avail weekly or monthly subscriptions. The new venture, which will be implemented by the end of this summer, will put into action the traditional delivery model with alphanumeric codes.
It is clear that transformation is the need of the hour for the dabbawalas to maintain relevance. But to ensure that their legacy is not lost, they must also try to retain their identity — the unique delivery system which brought them to the limelight. While India is limping back to normalcy and waiting for its 1.3 billion citizens to get vaccinated, the cloud kitchen might help the dabbawalas sustain and also ensure their legacy is intact until the country reopens. Only time will reveal what's in store for them.