If you live and work in Mumbai, India’s financial capital, and your idea of lunch is a fresh, home-cooked meal, then all you have to do is contact the The Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Association (MTBSA) and get them to deliver your lunch box to your office by 12:30 pm everyday, irrespective of the distance between your home and your office.
Popularly known as Mumbai’s dabbawallas – dabba for box and walla for person – they comprise a group of five thousand semi-literate men who ferry lunch boxes from people’s homes to their offices everyday. The dabba system, as it is called, works remarkably well, and is unique to the city of Mumbai, where millions of people live in the suburbs and commute long distances to work into the city. Having to leave home early, they don’t carry their lunch with them; instead, the food gets cooked later, mostly by the women in the family, and is collected by a dabbawalla, who then passes it down a supply chain to others like him, till the box reaches its rightful owner, often changing hands four or five times and sometimes traveling more than forty miles.
Why is this so incredible? Imagine this: Two hundred thousand lunch boxes are collected from different homes, mostly in the suburbs, between seven and nine every morning. These containers, all of which have codes that indicate where they are headed, are taken to the closest train station, from where they are carried to different station hubs. Here they are sorted area-wise, and once done, the boxes travel to the city, where they are picked up from the train stations, again, by dabbawallas, who then carry them, wading their way hurriedly through Mumbai’s heavy traffic – on foot, in carts or on cycles – on the final leg of their long journey. The lunch, thus, is at its destination by twelve-thirty sharp. Once finished, the entire process is repeated, in reverse, bringing the much-traveled box back home by six in the evening. All this without the use of cell phones, sophisticated transport or computer tracking systems, and yet, the entire process is virtually error-free. The cost to the customer? Anywhere between $3 to $7 a month.
So accurate, meticulous and organized is this human-chain-delivery system that it has been the subject of a BBC documentary, has a Six Sigma Quality Certification by Forbes magazine, has been the topic of study in management schools in and outside the country and has been commended by none other than Prince Charles, who even invited two dabbawallas for his wedding to Camela Parker Bowles in April 2005. The dabbawallas have become so popular with business and management types, they share their management secrets in a program called “Day with Dabbawalla.”
The system originated more than a hundred years ago when the British still ruled India and when the middle-class working man in the city of Mumbai, then Bombay, preferred, for reasons of cost and caste – different foods are banned by different castes – to eat home-cooked food. But even today, for millions of people working in Mumbai, this is still the best way to eat lunch. It’s home-cooked and cheap.
Moving with the times, the dabbawallas are now getting tech-savvy and have set up a website and a text messaging service for their customers. But that forward progress feels like a bit of an anomaly, since the beauty of this system is that it uses low-tech, yet extremely systematic and disciplined delivery and sorting methods, which have stayed unchanged in the last hundred years.