- In this file photo, dabbawalas of Mumbai push their cart laden wth lunchboxes through the streets of Mumbai.
- Rob Elliott/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
Flipkart Internet is tapping into one of India’s most efficient offline distribution networks to deliver packages: the dabbawalas of Mumbai.
Made famous for their steadfast delivery of freshly-made lunches in tiffins or ‘dabbas’ from people’s homes to the desks of office workers for more than a century, the dabbawalas navigate Mumbai’s maze every day using a complex code to sort through and deliver thousands of lunchboxes. They’ve even featured in a Harvard case study titled “The Dabbawala System: On-Time Delivery Every Time.”
Flipkart said in a statement on Friday it had partnered with one of the unions of the deliverymen in Mumbai. Their efficiency served as inspiration for how to conduct business and keep costs down, the statement said.
Here’s how it will work: The dabbawalas will only drop off prepaid deliveries to customers, while picking up their lunch boxes. They will not pick up packages from sellers. The plan is to expand the program include training the dabbawalas to use apps, according to the statement.
Other e-commerce companies have also experimented with inventive ways to expand their presence in the Indian market and deliver packages to customers in areas that are hard to reach.
Amazon.com Inc. said in 2014 it was considering joining forces with India’s vast network of tiny mom-and-pop shops that would allow customers to pick up their online orders from small neighborhood stores. It also tied up with India’s largest gas station chain owners, Bharat Petroleum Corp Ltd., to test the a pick-up service. In 2013, Amazon started using India Post in order to try to reach deep into the country’s hinterland.
The dabbawalas (also spelled dabbawallas or dabbawallahs, called tiffin wallahs in older sources) constitute a lunchbox delivery and return system that delivers hot lunches from homes and restaurants to people at work in India, especially 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. The 2013 Bollywood film The Lunchbox is based on the dabbawala service.
In 1890 Bombay, Mahadeo Havaji Bachche started a lunch delivery service with about a hundred men. In 1930, he informally attempted to unionize the dabbawallas. 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 current president of the association is Bhau Saheb Karbande and Subhash Talekar is the spokesperson.
When literally translated, the word "dabbawala" means "one who carries a box". "Dabba" means a box (usually a cylindrical tin or aluminium container) from Persian: دَبّه, while "wala" is an agentive suffix, denoting a doer or holder of the preceding word. The closest meaning of the dabbawala in English would be the "tiffin box delivery man".
Lunch boxes are marked in several ways:
- Abbreviations for collection points
- Colour code for starting station
- Number for destination station
- 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, and the white Gandhi cap (topi). Each month there is a division of the earnings of each unit. Fines are imposed for alcohol, tobacco, 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. As many of the carriers are of limited literacy (the average literacy of Dabbawallahs is that of 8th grade), the dabbas (boxes) have some sort of distinguishing mark on them, such as a colour or group of symbols.
The dabbawala 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 car 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 the respective houses. The dabbawalas also allow for delivery requests through SMS.
Most tiffin-wallahs are related to each other, 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 the annual village festival.
Each dabbawala, regardless of role, is paid around 8,000 rupees per month (about US$131 in 2014). Between 175,000 and 200,000 lunch boxes are moved each day by 4,500 to 5,000 dabbawalas. Tiffin-wallahs are self-employed. The union initiation fee is 30,000 rupees, which guarantees a 5,000-rupee monthly income and a job for life. The 150 rupee a month fee provides for delivery six days a week.(2002)
It is frequently claimed that dabbawalas make less than one mistake in every six million deliveries; however, this is only an estimation from Ragunath Medge, the president of the Mumbai Tiffinmen's Association in 1998, and is not from a rigorous study. Medge told Subrata Chakravarty, the lead author of the "Fast Food" article by Forbes where this claim first appeared, that dabbawalas make a mistake "almost never, maybe once every two months" and this statement was extrapolated by Subrata Chakravarty to be a rate of "one mistake in 8 million deliveries." Chakravarty recalled the affair in an interview and said:
"Forbes never certified the dabbawalas as being a six-sigma organization. In fact, I never used the term at all. As you know, six-sigma is a process, not a statistic. But it is commonly associated with a statistic of 1.9 errors per billion operations, and that is what caused the confusion … . I was impressed by the efficiency and complexity of the process by which some 175,000 tiffin boxes were sorted, transported, delivered and returned each day by people who were mostly illiterate and unsophisticated. I asked the head of the organization how often they made a mistake. He said almost never, maybe once every two months. Any more than that would be unforgivable to customers. I did the math, which works out to one mistake in 8 million deliveries—or 16 million, since the tiffin carriers are returned home each day. That is the statistic I used. Apparently, at a conference in 2002, a reporter asked the president … whether the tiffinwallahs were a six-sigma organization. He said he didn't know what that was. When told about the 1.9 error-per-billion statistic, I'm told he said: "Then we are. Just ask Forbes". The reporter, obviously without having read my story, wrote that Forbes had certified the tiffinwallahs as a six-sigma organization. That phrase was picked up and repeated by other reporters in other stories and now seems to have become part of the folklore."
— Subrata Chakravarty, 
The New York Times reported in 2007 that the 125-year-old dabbawala industry continues to grow at a rate of 5–10% per year.
In 2011, dabbawalas went on strike for the first time in 120 years to promote and attend a rally by Azad Maidan to support Anna Hazare in his campaign against corruption.
Studies and accolades
Various studies have focused on dabbawalas:
- In 2001, Pawan G. Agrawal carried out his PhD research in "A Study & Logistics & Supply Chain Management of Dabbawala in Mumbai". He presented his results on the efficiency of Dabbawallas in various fora.
- In 2005, the Indian Institute of Management (Ahmedabad) featured a case study on the Mumbai Dabbawallas from a management perspective of logistics.
- In 2010, Harvard Business School added the case study The Dabbawala System: On-Time Delivery, Every Time to their compendium for its high level of service with a low-cost and simple operating system.
- In 2014, Uma S. Krishnan completed her PhD research in "A Cross-Cultural Study of the Literacy Practices of The Dabbawalas: Towards a New Understanding of Non-mainstream Literacy and its Impact on Successful Business Practices."
On 21 March 2011, Prakash Baly Bachche carried three dabbawalla tiffin crates on his head at one time, which was entered as a Guinness world record.
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- ^Thomke, Stefan H.; Sinha, Mona (February 2010). The Dabbawala System: On-Time Delivery, Every Time (Case 610-059). Harvard, Ma.: Harvard Business School.
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- ^"Most dabbawala tiffin crates carried on the head". Guinness world records. Retrieved 2 May 2014.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Dabbawalas.|
- Shekhar Gupta, Our computer is our head and our Gandhi cap is the cover to protect it from the sun or rain, Indian Express, Walk the Talk, NDTV 24x7.
- Hart, Jeremy (2006-03-19). "The Mumbai working lunch". The Independent Online. The Independent group, London. Archived from the original on 2007-03-25. Retrieved 2007-03-20.
- "Indian lunchbox carriers to attend the Royal nuptials". Evening Standard (London). Associated Newspapers Ltd. 2005-04-05. Retrieved 2007-03-20. [permanent dead link]
- Mumbai's Dabbawala: The Uncommon Story of the Common Man, Shobha Bondre. tr. Shalaka Walimbe. OMO Books, 2011. ISBN 81-910356-1-8.
- The Dabbawala System: On-Time Delivery, Every Time, by Stefan H. Thomke and Mona Sinha, Harvard Business School Case Study, February 2010 (Revised January 2013)