The Dabbawala Services of Mumbai

Food & Drink

Each dabbawala is part of a bigger chain, and a single mistake can affect them all

Mumbai, as the financial capital of India, has a very high number of corporate offices and other commercial establishments. It also acts as an educational hub with a great many colleges. The dabbawalas provide the most unique of Mumbai services, amazing in magnitude as well as precision. Their service is basically to supply lunch to all the workers and students of Mumbai. Approximately 4000 dabbawalas supply lunch to more than 160,000 people daily. The lunch, which includes homemade hygienic food (generally from a two-course menu), is packed into dabbas, stainless steel round-shaped boxes, and delivered door-to-door by the dabbawalas through carry carts, bikes, trains, and buses. It is renowned world-over as the world’s most ingenious meal distribution system. Besides providing people with nutritional food cooked by housewives, this system is also a source of regular income for the housewives as well as the dabbawalas themselves.

Dabbawala Bike ServicesDabbawala services - so many containers!

The food supplied by the dabbawalas not only has a much higher nutritional value, but is also comparatively cheaper than what is otherwise available to office workers and students at many Mumbai restaurants. The dabbas are always delivered on time and are promptly collected after lunch. Due to this punctuality, Forbes awarded the dabbawalas a six sigma performance rating. Even in rain, political strife or social disturbances, the system has never hindered. The dabbawala services accuracy rate is an astonishing 99.9999%, which has seen the system grow at a rate of around 10% per year.

The dabbawala service was established during British rule in the 1890s. Mahadeo Havaji Bachchhe recruited a number of men who were either unemployed or had no good income and provided them with a livelihood.

Transporting the goods!

Possibly the most amazing thing about this service is that the system is completely manual, with the average education level of the dabbawala being around the eighth grade of school. These dabbawalas coordinate with the railways, as thousands of boxes every day are transported via train. These dabbawalas pick up their boxes and either walk or bicycle to their ultimate destination. The meal boxes are batched according to the destination and unique numbers are assigned to each meal box. Each dabbawala is part of a bigger chain and a single mistake can affect them all. In fact, the time management skills, precision, coordination and discipline with which these dabbawalas work is something that has been studied and analysed by various universities over the years.        

During their duty hours, dabbawalas are bound to strict rules and regulations. They cannot consume alcohol or any kind of drug and they must wear Gandhi caps so that they can be easily identified in crowded areas such as the railway stations.

Dabbawalas on the roadside

Dabbawala chains face stiff competition from restaurants in Mumbai and other fast food joints. Yet these meal boxes remain in high demand as people relish homemade food that is superior to Mumbai street food. It’s cheaper too, with meal boxes costing between 200-500 rupees per month.

The media has played a significant role in the continued popularity of the dabbawala services and people remaining fascinated by them. In 1998, a documentary film, titled ‘Dabbawallahs: Mumbai’s Unique Lunch Service’ was conceived and produced by Dutch film makers Jascha de Wilde and Chris Rellek. In 2002, Jonathon Hally, a reporter with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) reported on the dabbawalas and in 2003, the BBC broadcasted a program which highlighted just how unique the dabbawala business is.

To say that Mumbai is the lifeline of India is not exaggeration; nor is saying the same of the dabbawalas to Mumbai. Visit Mumbai to experience lunchtime like never before with the unique Dabbawala Services of Mumbai.