Every day, battling the traffic and crowds of Mumbai city, the Dabbawalas, also known as Tiffinwallahs, unfailingly delivered thousands of dabbas to hungry people and later returned the empty dabbas to where they came from. The Dabbawala’s delivered either home-cooked meals from clients’ homes or lunches ordered for a monthly fee, from women who cook at their homes according to the client’s specifications. The Dabbawala’s service was used by both working people and school children’s. In 1998, Forbes Global magazines conducted a quality assurance study on the Dabbawallas operations and gave it a Six Sigma efficiency rating of 99.99 the Dabbawalas made one error in Six million transactions. That put them on the list of Six Segma rated companies, along with multinationals like Motorola and GE. Achieving this rating was no mean feat considering that the Dabbawala’s didn’t use any technology or paperwork, and that most of them were illiterate or semiliterate. Apart from Forbes, the Dabbawalas has aroused the interest of many other international organizations, media ad academia.
In 1998, two Dutch filmmakers, Jascha De Wilde and Chris Relleke made a documentory called ‘Dabbawallas’, Mumbai’s unique launch service. The film focused on how the tradition of eating home-cooked meals, and a business based on that, could survive in a cosmopolitan city like Mumbai. In july 2001, The Christian Science Monitor, an international newspaper published from Boston, Mass., USA, covered the Dabbawallas in an article called “Fastest Food” It’s Big Mac vs. Bombay’s DABBAWALLA’S.
In 2002, Jonathan Harley, a reporter, did a story on the Dabbawalas with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). In 2003, BBC also aired a program on the DABBAWALLA’S, which was part of a series on unique business of the world.
In 2003, Paul S. Goodman and Denise Rousseau, both faculties at the Graduate School of Industrial Administration of Carnegie Mellon University, made their first full-length documentary called “The Dabbawalas”. According to the press release of the TV station presenting the documentary. “The firm also serves as a counterpoint. Instead of asking how knowledge in developing countries can help less developed countries, this film focuses on how developed countries can learn from less developed countries”.
Back home, the Dabbawala’s were invited to speak at Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) meets and at leading Indian business schools such as IIM, Bangalore and Lucknow.
The origin of the Dabbawalas lunch delivery service dates back to the 1890’s during the British raj. As there were no canteens or fast food centers then, if working people did not bring their lunch from home, they had to go hungry and invariably, lunch would not be ready when they left home, they had to go hungry and invariably, lunch would not be ready when they left home for work.
Besides, different communities had different tastes and preferences which could only be satisfied by a home-cooked meal. Recognizing the need, Mahadeo Havaji Bacche (Mahadeo), a migrant from North Maharashtra, started the lunch delivery service. For his enterprise, Mahadeo recruited youth from the villages neighbouring Mumbai, who were involved in agriculture work. They were willing to come as the income they got from agriculture was not enough to support their large families, and they had no education or skills to get work in the city. The service started with about 100 Dabbawala’s and cost the clients Rs.2 a month. Gradually, the number of Dabbawala’s increased and the service continued even through the founder was no more.
Organisational Structure and Working Style:
The Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Supplier’s Charity Trust had a very flat structure with only three levels, the Governing Council, the Mukadams and the Dabbawalas. The Governing Council held mettings once a month which were attended by the Mukadams and Dabbawalas. At these meetings, the Dabbawalas discussed their problems and explored possible solutions. The problems could be with the police, municipal corporation, customer, etc. They also adjudicated disputes among Dabbawalas using their own system. The trust collected Rs.15 from each Dabbawalas every month to maintain a welfare fund.
The Dabbawalas service was available whereever the local trains ran in Mumbai as it was their primary mode of transportation. During the delivery process, the dabba’s changed hands at least four times before they reached their destination.
Will the Dabbawala’s continue to feed the Hungry?
The Dabbawalas have been in service for more than a hundred years, surviving the many changes in the city of Mumbai. However, the changing environment was threatening the survival of the Dabbawalas. “The second generation does not want to get into this business as returns are not much,” said one Dabbawala. Some Dabbawala’s felt that there was danger of the business eventually dying out as they are unable to attract new recruits from within their families and relatives who had traditionally been their main source of recruitment.