The Dabbawallahs (Tiffin-carriers) of Mumbai


*Dabba = lunch box or tiffin box, wallah = man

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A unique and quietly spectacular process takes place in Mumbai twice a day. Each day 200,000 hot home-cooked lunches are delivered to students, workers and managers in their offices by a barefoot fleet of 5,000 white-uniformed lunch box men, tiffin carriers or dabbawallahs.

Their favourite curry and chapati is lovingly prepared at home by the worker’s wife or mother in the morning, packed into a tiffin box or dabba which is usually a large tin cylinder divided into sections inside, collected by a wallah usually on a bicycle from the home in the suburbs and taken to the local railway station. There it joins the other dabbas which are sorted by destination and put on the right train. At stations along the way other wallahs collect the batches of dabbas for that destination and carry them on long trays holding about 35 or 40 dabbas (each weighs about 2kg) and deliver them to the hungry worker at his desk or in his factory by one o’clock.  Afterwards, the process is reversed with the empty dabba. A simple, door-to-door service that costs customers around 300 Rps or £5 a month, has no technology or documentation just colour-coded symbols – but a logistical nightmare. Nevertheless, the dabbawallah organisation achieves a 99.99% efficiency rating that is envied by the biggest businesses in the world..

This complex system seems to be only possible logistially in Mumbai where there is a dense network of trains running from the suburbs in the south to the business centre in the north, and where there are large numbers of middle-class workers facing a long, crowded commute and who leave home before their wives or mothers start cooking and wouldn’t want to carry a tiffin box anyway. It started with the British and Parsi population who didn’t like the local food and who wanted their wives’ cooking delivered to them, and the idea caught on amongst the Indian workers of Bombay who, as a rule, still prefer home-cooked food at lunchtime.

Now an army of 5,000 dabbawallahs in white kurti uniforms with white caps are a Mumbai institution. They are largely illiterate Maharashtrians from rural Pune whose fathers and grandfathers were dabbawallahs too, but this is a reputable and relatively well-paid profession with its workers, all self-employed, required to invest an equal amount in what is essentially a co-operative,  and paid the same, up to 5,000 Rps a month. They regard themselves as shareholders in their own business, and their strict teamwork, timing and precision ensures success for all.

Follow one of Mumbai’s celebrated dabbawallahs on a typical day and go behind the scenes on a private tour with your own guide and driver, organised by ReadyClickAndGo. Watch the intricate system of collection and distribution of the tiffin boxes from start to finish, prices for a private 4-5 hour tour are from £22.50 contact Tara@ReadyClickAndGo.com for more details.

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