The Mumbai Dabbawalas

July 01

The Mumbai Dabbawalas are a highly efficient delivery network, bringing up to 200,000 meals every day from home kitchens to office-goers in Mumbai, India. They derive their name from the reusable lunchboxes, known as dabbas or tiffins, that they transport all across the city. Growing up in this city that never sleeps, the Dabbawalas in their white Gandhi caps and bicycles laden with tiffin boxes were a common sight and TiffinTime is my way of bringing this piece of my home city to Brussels. 

Origin story

Food

In the late 1800s, Mumbai, then Bombay, was a burgeoning hub of trade and commerce, attracting workers from across India. Mahadeo Havaji Bachche observed the struggle of office-goers who missed their home-cooked meals, and conceived a plan that would eventually become a lifeline for many. Mahadeo gathered a small group of men, equipped them with wooden crates and bicycles, and embarked on a mission to deliver home-cooked meals from suburban kitchens to city offices. This was the beginning of an ingenious system that has stood the test of time. It is operational even today, albeit with small changes to adapt to new technologies like online booking, and many restaurants and catering services also use the Dabbawalas to get their meals to their customers.

How it works

The Mumbai Dabbawalas use a straightforward, yet highly efficient system to ensure that the right meal reaches the right customer, time after time. It can be broken down into the following steps:

1. Collection and Coding: The Dabbawalas collect lunchboxes from homes across Mumbai. Each box is marked with a unique code made up of symbols, colours and alphanumeric characters, indicating the collection point, delivery destination, and the recipient.

2. Sorting and Transportation: After collection, the lunchboxes are transported by bicycle, or hand-drawn wooden cart to the local train station that acts as a sorting point. Here, they are grouped based on their final destinations, and loaded onto the corresponding suburban train.

3. Final Delivery: Upon reaching the train station closest to the recipient’s office, another team of Dabbawalas takes over. They deliver the lunchboxes to individual workplaces, once again by bicycle or hand cart, ensuring they arrive before lunchtime. Post-lunch, the process is reversed to return the empty lunchboxes to their respective homes.

You might be wondering: Why don’t office-goers in Mumbai just take their dabbas with them when they leave for work in the morning? Well, they say a picture speaks a thousand words, and a video does even more, so here’s one of a packed Mumbai local during rush hour! The Dabbawalas can capitalise on the relative calm post the morning rush and before the evening crowds to transport their lunchboxes between kitchens and customers.

Conclusion

The Dabbawala service is not just a logistical marvel; it is also a cultural icon of Mumbai. It embodies the spirit of the city—resilient, resourceful, and relentless. This system is a true eco-solution that has stood the test of time. Be sure to put the Dabbawalas on your to-do list if you are planning a trip to Mumbai, and until then, TiffinTime is your tiffin delivery service in Brussels, bringing you all the taste without the waste!

Source: https://mumbaidabbawala.in/about-us/

Additional pictures: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-26128597