Meet Mumbai’s Dabbawalas

Simple, hardworking and godfearing, the dabbawalas of Mumbai, who strive to ensure that the denizens eat on time, have a heart made of gold

Babu has worked with Hercules for nearly 40 years. They share an inseparable partnership. Despite their growing ricketiness, Babu and his 1968 Raleigh Hercules touring bicycle have together clocked up over one hundred and fifty thousand miles, pedalling the congested main streets and equally chaotic backstreets of Mumbai for a living.


A professional Dabbawala, Babu is a member of the city’s Mumbai Dabbawala Association. He is 70, and with the help of his beloved 30-something two-wheeler, still rides 20 miles on a normal working day. He leaves home at 5am and returns at 9pm. “‘Dabbas’, as they are called in Marathi or Hindi, are typically metallic tiffin-boxes that we collect from private homes from all around the city. We collect them from wives, mothers, grandmothers, daughters or nieces and deliver them on every working day to their family members at their workplace,” says Babu, as he awaits his train at the Grant Road railway station.


Dabbawalas, with cans tied to every part of their bicycles, is one of the most common sights in Mumbai and one can spot these men almost everywhere. They are a major food delivery relay system world over. Says Babu, who belongs to the third generation in his family of tiffin-box carriers, “Providing dabbas is one of the oldest catering systems of the world. It is an honour to serve this iconic city as a lunch-pail boy.”


The tradition of carrying lunch boxes from homes to workplaces dates back to 1890. Shri Mahadev Dube, who would deliver light lunches to the offices of Britishers who lived away from their places of employment, was its pioneer. In those days, the dabbas were delivered either by a bicycle, handcart, tanga (horse-drawn carriage) and even bullock carts. Mahadeo Bhavaji Bachche from Maharashtra picked up on the idea and developed it. He started a lunch delivery service with a team of 100 dabbawalas at that time.


When dabbawalas join this profession they make a donation, which guarantees them a monthly salary of approximately 5,000 rupees, as well as a degree of healthcare and education for their children. In effect, they are independent small scale entrepreneurs.

Mumbai’s local trains are the main mode of transport for dabbawalas apart from their bicycles. The service criss-crosses the city of 20 million people in a complex cat’s cradle of routes by which the boxes are collected in the morning from the doorsteps of homes and delivered straight to desk in downtown offices. Sometimes one tiffin box can travel 60 kilometres one way. The boxes are collected again at 2.30pm and delivered back to the collection point. “It is military precision with which this time-table is followed. It’s all about coordination and teamwork,” informs Babu, while introducing his friend and colleague, Dhondu. “In Mumbai, we Dabbawalas are the kings of the road,” Dhondu quips, adding, “We are here to serve all Mumbaikars. Our customers range from oil executives on Nariman Point, to the money men of Stock Exchange, and the common man.”


Babu delivers about 50 lunch boxes a day and one tiffin can change hands as many as ten times before reaching its final destination. Every dabba is colour and number coded. Explaining how to decode the number, Babu points at one and explains, “For example, in the number K-BO-10-19/A/15, K denotes the identity letter of the dabbawala or carrier, BO means Borivali, i.e., the area from where the tiffin is to be collected, number 10 is the pin code of Nariman point area (delivery point), 19/A/15 means 19th Building and the 15th floor, easy and simple!”


Although a Dabbawala’s profession is not tech-fuelled, text messaging is becoming popular among them. Some Dabbawalas are seen endorsing brands/advertisements on their cycles including mobile billboards. The dabbawalas may not be technically very sound but they certainly have a heart that is made of gold. During their annual visit to Jejuri near Pune every year, many of them indulge in charity work without making much uproar about it. They provide funds for dharamshalas at sacred places like Bhimashankar, Alandi, Jejuri and Pandharpur.


There are approximately 5,000 professional dabbawalas operating every day in Mumbai. “It is cheaper for our customers to pay for dabba as compared to eating at a restaurant every day and hence, the demand for dabbawalas will never end. This just proves that old ways are the best!” concludes Babu. With this, he tightens the grip over handlebars of his Hercules one more time and pedals away.

Written By: Kevin Pilley

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