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The Dabbawalas of Mumbai

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The dabbawalas constitute a lunchbox delivery and return system that delivers hot lunches from homes and restaurants to people at work in Mumbai.

The lunchboxes are picked up in the late morning, delivered predominantly using bicycles and railway trains, and returned empty in the afternoon. They are also used by meal suppliers in Mumbai, who pay them to ferry lunchboxes with ready-cooked meals from central kitchens to customers and back.


In 1890 in Bombay, Mahadeo Havaji Bachche started a lunch delivery service with about a 100 men. In 1930, he informally attempted to unionize the dabbawalas. Later, a charitable trust was registered in 1956 under the name of Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Trust. The commercial arm of this trust was registered in 1968 as Mumbai Tiffin Box Supplier’s Association.

The service was born in the 1890s out of sheer necessity. With more and more migrants of varying communities reaching Mumbai and no fast food culture and office canteens around to calm growing hunger pangs at noon, there was a lack of an effective system to ensure that office-workers could eat a proper meal at lunchtime. Simultaneously there was a steady supply of less educated workers, who had travelled to the cities as agricultural activity was no longer economically viable. With insufficient education to work as clerks in British homes, but with enough sinew and energy to undertake any hard work, the idea of delivering home-made food was born.

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Colour Coding System

As many of the carriers are of limited literacy (the average literacy of Dabbawallahs is that of 8th grade), the dabbas have some sort of distinguishing mark on them, such as a colour or group of symbols. The dabbawalas follow an interesting colour coding system and all lunch boxes are marked in several ways for different purposes:

  1. Abbreviations for collection points
  2. Colour code for starting station
  3. Number for destination station
  4. Markings for handling dabbawala at destination, building and floor

 A colour-coding system identifies the destination and recipient. Each dabbawala is required to contribute a minimum capital in kind, in the form of –

  • two bicycles
  • a wooden crate for the tiffins
  • white cotton kurta-pyjamas
  • the white Gandhi cap

Each month there is a division of the earnings of each unit. Fines are imposed for alcohol or/and tobacco use, being out of uniform, and absenteeism.

A collecting dabbawala, usually on bicycle, collects dabbas either from a worker’s home or from the dabba makers. He then takes them to a sorting place, where he and other collecting dabbawalas sort the lunch boxes into groups. The grouped boxes are put in the coaches of trains, with markings to identify the destination of the box (usually there is a designated compartment for the boxes). The markings include the railway station to unload the boxes and the destination building delivery address. Some modern infrastructure improvements such as the Navi Mumbai Metro are not used in the supply chain, as cabins do not have the capacity for hundreds of tiffins.

At each station, boxes are handed over to a local dabbawala, who delivers them. The empty boxes are collected after lunch or the next day and sent back to respective senders. The dabbawalas also allow for delivery requests through SMS.

Most tiffin-wallahs are related to each other. They belong to the Varkari sect of Maharashtra,  and come from the same small village near Pune. Tiffin distribution is suspended for five days each March as the tiffin-wallahs go home for an annual village festival.

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The Numbers

  • Each dabbawala, regardless of role, is paid around Rs. 8,000 per month. (This might have changed in the current situation)
  • Between 175,000 and 200,000 lunch boxes are moved each day by 4,500 to 5,000 dabbawalas.
  • Dabbawallahs are self-employed. The union initiation fee is Rs. 30,000, which guarantees a Rs. 5,000 monthly income and a job for life.
  • The Rs. 150 a month fee charged from customers provides for lunch delivery six days a week. (These figures may have undergone some change over time).

Some Interesting Facts

  • It is frequently claimed that dabbawalas make less than one mistake in every six million deliveries; however, it is believed that dabbawalas almost never make a mistake – or at worst maybe once every two months.
  • The New York Times reported in 2007 that the 125-year-old dabbawala industry continues to grow at a rate of 5 to 10% per year.
  • In 2011, dabbawalas went on strike for the first time in 120 years to promote and attend a rally at Azad Maidan to support Anna Hazare in his campaign against corruption.
  • Dabbawalas have been appreciated for their service by well-known personalities including Prince Charles and Virgin Atlantic’s Richard Branson.
  • Many business schools teach dabbawalla as case study as a part of their management studies curriculum both as a business model and an exemplary instance of team work.
  • The 2013 Bollywood film The Lunchbox is based on the dabbawala service.

Guinness Book of World Records

On 21 March 2011, Prakash Baly Bachche carried three dabbawalla tiffin crates on his head at one time, and made an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Vandana R. Singh and Arindam Ghosh
Written for Schoolnet India & Learnet Skills on 10th April 2020

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