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Amid the press of people huffing up the steep stone steps of Mumbai’s Santacruz railway station in the rising morning heat, only Dashrat Kedari has a 7ft-long wooden crate wobbling precariously on his head. That’s not the extent of his exertion. On the lurid-red crate, fenced in by a metal rim, are 30 or so silver tins, sides dented and lids clattering under the strain of the ascent.
Dressed in a starched white Gandhi cap, cotton shirt, lightweight trousers and leather sandals, Kedari is one of an army of 5,000 lunchbox carriers who keep the office workers of India’s “Maximum City” supplied with home-cooked food. Known as “dabbawalas”, after the 130,000 “dabbas” — or metal tiffin boxes — that they lug between home and office each day, Kedari and his fellow porters have been part of the fabric of this frenzied, grime-ridden metropolis-of-dreams for 125 years.
Kedari, now 47, has been a dabbawala for more than three decades. Many of the children from his village, about four hours’ drive from Mumbai, become dabbawalas, especially those with limited education. For what is essentially menial work, the dabbawalas earn, by Indian standards, a decent wage of some Rs12,000, or $200, a month. Organised in a co-operative, they enjoy job security and command respect in this toughest of Indian cities.
Kedari started skipping school before he was 10. “Sometimes I’d go and sometimes I wouldn’t,” he says, matter-of-factly. Mostly, he played around in the fields where his parents cultivated a subsistence-sized plot of rice, millet and onions. Occasionally, he’d make a trip to the bright lights of Mumbai to follow his elder brother on his dabbawala round. He learnt to ride a bike, the stock-in-trade of the dabbawala. “I used to hang out with him in Churchgate, Marine Lines,” Kedari says, referring to the glamorous areas in the wealthy south of the city. “My brother did it, that’s why I did it,” he adds of his eventual graduation, aged 16, to the profession. “This job makes me feel good. Feeding people is a worthwhile occupation.”
Studied by consultants and business schools for the secrets of their proclaimed near-flawless efficiency, the dabbawalas have been feted by British royals (Prince Charles) and titans of industry (Richard Branson) alike. Even FedEx, which supposedly knows something about logistics, has paid them a visit. In 2010, the Harvard Business Review published a study of the dabbawala system entitled “On-Time Delivery, Every Time”. In it, the authors asserted that the dabbawalas operate to Six Sigma standards even though they have few special skills, charge a minimal fee (around $10-$13 a month) and use no IT.
Six Sigma, a measurement standard developed by Motorola in the 1980s and now used by, among other organisations, General Electric and the British defence contractor BAE Systems, “is defined as 3.4 defective parts (errors) per million opportunities”. The dabbawalas conduct some 260,000 transactions daily — 130,000 boxes are delivered to offices every morning and 130,000 are returned home every afternoon — six days a week, 51 weeks a year. That’s nearly 80 million annual deliveries. To meet Six Sigma’s exacting standards, that means fewer than 300 dabbas must go astray each year. Among the explanations for such supposed accuracy, the Harvard Business Review honed in on four: organisation; process; worker empowerment (the dabbawalas set their own prices and find their own customers); and culture (they hail from the same cluster of villages and have a shared religion and language).
The dabbawalas even featured in a 2013 film, The Lunchbox, whose love story hinges on something the entire dabbawala system is designed to avoid: a mistake. Kedari had a minor role in a scene in which the dabbawalas chant a religious song. Yet the focus on an error has not endeared the film to its protagonists. Kedari hasn’t bothered to see it. Raghunath Medge, president of the Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers’ Association, dismisses it as a “masala movie”, a spiced-up Bollywood invention.
This morning, as on most days, Kedari started at 8am, when he left his one-room home — shared with his wife and two children — in the sprawling working-class district of Jogeshwari. An hour later, he had begun his regular route, picking up boxes from middle-class residents in Andheri West, ready for lunchtime delivery to the office blocks that seem to spring up daily in this fervently commercial city of 20 million people. The morning round is hectic. Pick-ups at each residence are limited to 30 seconds, a minute tops. If Kedari arrives late, or if the dabba is not ready for collection, the whole timetable can careen into chaos. At each door, he rings the bell and, after a brief pause, someone emerges with a tiffin box packed with a home-cooked lunch ready for collection; the box has several stacked metal compartments to keep the flavours separate.
Most of the families who use the dabbawala service have particular dietary requirements. Parsis, descendants of Zoroastrians from Iran, and Gujaratis from the state that neighbours Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital, have distinctive cuisines. There are Hindus who don’t eat beef, and Muslims who don’t touch pork. There are those who don’t eat meat (“veg”) and those who do (“non-veg”). One reason for the dabbawalas’ legendary accuracy may be the high cost — in terms of religious and cultural offence — that mixing up orders would entail. Several of Kedari’s customers are Jains, whose strict diet even excludes onions, potatoes and garlic. (Some Jains wear a mask to ensure they don’t swallow insects by mistake.) “We are pure, pure vegetarian,” says a smiling lady at the door of her apartment, handing over a tiffin. The lunchbox she has prepared contains curried vegetables, dal, rice and freshly made chapattis.
Dabbas safely collected, Kedari lashes them to the back of his motorbike. There are about 30 in all. The arrangement looks more than a little precarious. The lid of each is marked with a code combining numbers, letters and colours, a system for identifying the delivery address that has evolved because many of the dabbawalas can’t read. “It’s a job for the illiterate,” says Medge. “It’s a lot of hard work. The literate are no use in this industry.”
Kedari is unusual in having a motorbike. Most dabbawalas have stuck to carts or push bikes, which are easy to manoeuvre through the narrow lanes and clogged traffic. He soon reaches Andheri railway station, where other dabbawalas have gathered. Each has brought two dozen or more tiffin boxes, many of them wrapped in heat-preserving covers, from the Andheri neighbourhood. These are now arranged, seemingly haphazardly, on the pavement opposite the station. All around is the tooting of motorised rickshaws and the confusion of commuters. The dabbawalas busily sort the tins into batches according to their codes. Few tiffins are picked up and dispatched by one dabbawala — like many big logistics companies, the dabbawalas operate a hub-and-spoke system. Most tiffins reach their destination via several pairs of hands.
By now, Kedari has arranged his crate, which will go to Lower Parel further down the line. Tiffin tins rattling on his head, he makes for the platform and boards the train for Santacruz, where he needs to change on to another line. Kedari hauls his load to the top of the stairs and rounds the corner on to a walkway running across the tracks. In the busy thrum of an Indian station, few give the sight of the dabbawala and his careering tiffin boxes a second glance. Halfway along the walkway, tiled in black-and-white squares and blotched with red betel-nut spit like a blood-splattered chessboard, Kedari heads back down a stairway on to another platform. He marches purposefully along until he reaches an unmarked spot in the glaring sun. Sweat slides down the back of his neck, though he professes not to feel the heat. With the aid of his companion Ganesh — who has suddenly appeared — he heaves the groaning crate to the ground.
A train shunts into the station. Passengers in the crowded compartments lean out of the doors even before it stops. As it hisses to a halt, the small carriage reserved for luggage stops exactly at the spot where Kedari has set down his tiffins on the platform. The dabbawala system could not function if Mumbai’s extensive train network did not work, as it does, to a high level of efficiency. Medge says that, of the Six Sigmas, he awards two to his own organisation, two to the bicycle and two to the train.
In the luggage compartment, dabbawalas sit cross-legged on the floor, tiffin boxes piled around them. Kedari and Ganesh pull their crate into the compartment and squat on their haunches against a tinny blue wall. Fans sit motionless in the stilted air, their protective grills thick with years of grime. Crows caw noisily outside.
Kedari suddenly leaps to his feet. Picking up a single tiffin, he passes it through the window to a dabbawala in an adjacent train. Later he explains that he has calculated the tiffin will arrive at its destination earlier by this alternative route. Although the dabbawalas work in units of about 20, they regularly shuffle boxes between teams and, rather like Toyota’s legendary assembly-line workers, are empowered to tweak things in the interests of efficiency. “We do it every day,” Kedari explains. “We recognise each other and know where each of us is heading.”
The train jerks from the platform. The carriages rattle past thick vegetation and higgledy-piggledy houses crammed up against the tracks. A little way down the line, those who are not inured to it smell Mahim Creek before they see it. A black, open sewer, choked with mangroves and poisoned by industrial effluent, it is teeming with slum life.
The train pulls into Lower Parel, a former cotton-mill centre that is now home to many of Mumbai’s newest office blocks. Kedari and Ganesh muscle their crate off the train, along the platform, up the steps and out on to a busy flyover. The tiffins are unloaded on to push bikes, which are waiting for them, unattended and seemingly safe from theft — the dabbawalas say their system relies on the trust and respect of Mumbai’s residents. They rely too on close connections with Shiv Sena, a pro-Marathi Hindu nationalist party that has dominated Mumbai politics for two decades. If there is “any fight or any problem” — say a parking fine or a stolen bicycle — Shiv Sena is invariably helpful, explains Medge. In return, the dabbawalas provide a loyal voting bloc.
The dabbawalas have also become the subject of Indian academic inquiry. Dr Pawan G Agrawal is not a medical practitioner. He owes the Dr in front of his name to the PhD he earned studying how the dabbawalas operate. (Both his father and grandfather were dabbawalas but Agrawal has made a niche for himself as a “dabbawala theoretician”.) His 2010 thesis, supervised by the Yashwantrao Chavan Maharashtra Open University, is entitled “A Study of Logistics and Supply Chain Management of Dabbawala in Mumbai”. Although dabbawalas are unique to Mumbai — enabled both by the excellent train system and by the city’s linear layout — Agrawal says they have much to teach other businesses. With a TED talk to his name, Agrawal is now a regular on the lecture circuit, coaching multinationals in the theory and practice of dabbawala logistics. “Sir, you tell me the name — that company we have spoken to,” he says, reeling off a list from Microsoft and Tata Consultancy to Capgemini. It was Agrawal who introduced the dabbawalas to Virgin’s boss, Sir Richard. “I was two days with him. He travelled with us in the luggage compartment.”
Agrawal holds forth from his offices at the Agrawal Institute of Management & Technology, the smartest building on the unpaved street in Vikhroli, a residential suburb to the east of the city. Outside on the street, boys are playing cricket. Inside, the office is so fiercely air-conditioned that the heavily sugared chai brought to guests is cold by the time it arrives. Agrawal sits behind his desk, arms outstretched in a welcoming gesture. He hands over his card, which lists, in addition to his PhD, so many qualifications and awards that it is concertinaed into three sections to accommodate them all. A shelf behind him is crammed with plaques.
Agrawal has a neat, pencil-thin moustache, a round face and an infectious smile. There is something of a Dickensian character about him. Asked to explain the essence of the dabbawala system, he slips into a 20-minute monologue, broken only when he stands up — first to put on a Gandhi cap (by way of a prop) and later to slam two tiffin tins on the table (ditto). “Number one. What can we learn from them?” he asks, as if addressing a large audience. (His numbering system is eccentric to say the least, and “number two” is mentioned at least half a dozen times.) “Passion. Commitment. Dedication. Accuracy. Time management. And very important: customer satisfaction,” he declares. “They believe work is worship. And number two, the customer is god,” he says, drawing out the final word as though letting air from a balloon. “Suppose even my father is dying,” he says suddenly, by way of example. “I am working. I am delivering. I get the message my father is dying. I will not immediately rush out. I will adjust my job, adjust my tiffin.”
One estimate of errors per year
In his book, Masters of Supply Chain Management, Agrawal says the dabbawala service began in 1890 when a Parsi banker employed a young man from near Pune to deliver a lunchbox from his home to his Mumbai office. Slowly the service expanded and more dabbawalas were recruited from villages near Pune. The dabbawalas traced their ancestry to soldiers who fought alongside the 17th-century warrior king Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, founder of the Maratha empire. For many in modern-day Maharashtra, Shivaji is still remembered as a defender of Hinduism against Mughal invasion, a legacy that resonates in the religiously charged and sometimes violent politics of Mumbai. That is one reason the dabbawalas support Shiv Sena, a party that backs Marathi rights against what they present as the onslaught of migrants from other parts of India. “Shiv Sena do a lot for dabbawalas. They stick up for us,” says Kedari.
For the dabbawalas, Shivaji is a source of pride but also a reminder of how far they have fallen. Agrawal quotes Shri Sopan Mare, president of the Tiffin Box Suppliers’ Association, as saying, “Today we, the descendants of such great warriors, run around with the load of 25-30 tiffins on our heads. Our elders used to carry swords in the name of Shivaji.”
Customers of the dabbawalas almost universally praise the service. But their testimony doesn’t quite gel with the idea of only a few errors per million. Reema Kothari, who has used dabbawalas to deliver a lunchbox to her financier husband for 20 years, says her tiffin went missing once. “Once in 20 years is fine, though the dabbawala got a good scolding from us,” she says. Pressed, she raises her estimate of stray tiffins to “once or twice in 20 years” and then again to “once or twice a year”. Even once in 20 years would be one error per roughly 12,250 deliveries. Unless Kothari is just unlucky, that’s a far cry from 3.4 mistakes per million. Agrawal is unmoved. He even ups the ante by quoting a different figure: one mistake per 16 million, and then reaches his definitive conclusion. “We believe there is not one mistake,” he says emphatically. “There’s no error. Because error is horror.”
He pauses to let his words hover in the air. “Number two. These people do not know whether they are Six Sigma or 10 Sigma,” he says of the dabbawalas. “These people are working for customer satisfaction.” Their service is so respected, he says, that many customers entrust their salary to the tiffin box rather than risk the danger of carrying it home on the train themselves.
Like the Harvard Business Review, Agrawal emphasises community. “If the people are not good, the system can collapse. So people are important. Because they are from the same community, this is good.” One of the system’s purported strengths is that it is more or less a closed shop. Many children of dabbawalas follow their parents into the business, making it something of a professional caste. That gives people from outside the dabbawala communities almost no chance of breaking in. “Muslims, Gujaratis, Parsis. We’ll carry dabbas for them,” says Kedari. “But they can’t do our work.”
Agrawal denies discrimination but says the dabbawalas’ owe their success to fact that they are a tight-knit community of like-minded people. “Have you heard that there was a bomb in the tiffin?” he asks dramatically. “No!” Then, “Have you heard that there was some smuggling in the tiffin? No! Why? Because they care. Because they are 100 per cent dedicated. I am not against Muslims but we are these people,” he says, fingering a string of wooden beads worn by Hindus around his neck. “My father was a dabbawala. He wore this chain. And the person who wears this chain never drinks, he never smokes, he never eats non-veg, he always obeys our elders.”
One question the dabbawalas struggle with is whether their business can survive the onslaught of modernity. India is a nation in flux, socially, culturally and technologically. More women work and so are not at home to prepare food for their husbands. People eat out more. The emerging middle classes order takeaway. The dabbawalas have mostly stuck resolutely to their 125-year-old model. “New technology is for the literate,” says Medge. “We dabbawalas don’t know much about technology.”
Rishi Khiani, a serial entrepreneur, speaks a different language. His office is all new India — swipe cards at the entrance, bright young things at open-plan desks and green tea for guests. Khiani has recently acquired a company called Meals on Wheels, which he has jazzed up with the name Scootsy and kitted out with brightly coloured motorbikes. His deliverymen, who will earn slightly more than dabbawalas, are armed with Android devices and an app that allows customers to follow their orders on their smartphones. “They’re giving us pings back on our CRM,” says Khiani, using the acronym for “customer relationship management” tool as he flips through his PowerPoint presentation. “That tells us where any person is at any given time.” Scootsy won’t just deliver takeaways from QSRs, he says, meaning quick service restaurants. It will soon branch out into other categories — groceries, flowers, electronic goods. “It’s masspirational,” he says. “We’re going to be the Uber for everything.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Khiani reckons that the dabbawalas, for all their suspicion of new-fangled ways, can adapt and survive. “They are intrinsic to the way this city operates, and the one thing you’re always going to need is food,” he says. “And what the dabbawalas provide is a very cost-effective way to get food out there.” Indeed, so cost-effective that, although Khiani is launching a rival (if much smaller) delivery service, his business will use the dabbawalas’ network. One of his start-ups is Raw Pressery, which delivers juice cleansers to its health-conscious customers through the dabbawala system. The same applies to another of his services, RevoFit, in which a nutritionist custom-designs lunches for finicky clients. “I can’t have a really high price point, which means that relying on my own logistics isn’t feasible.”
The dabbawalas have tried to adapt in other ways too. They sometimes deliver fliers or samples for companies, including multinationals such as PepsiCo. In April, Flipkart, India’s Amazon equivalent, announced a tie-up with the dabbawalas for the delivery of books, toys and other items.
Such attempts to modernise notwithstanding, the dabbawalas’ customer base is static at best. Long gone are the days when they delivered dinner as well as lunch around the city. “Young people eat out more,” sniffs Medge. “They eat pizza and burgers.” Nor, says Kedari, does the dabbawala profession hold the same appeal it once did. Factories are opening up near the dabbawalas’ villages, giving youngsters new options as loaders or security guards. “We never learnt to read and write but our kids have learnt, so they can be something more than just a dabbawala.”
By now Kedari is on the final stretch of his morning delivery. He sets off, cycling first to the Lodha Building, an imposing office block not far from the station. There he unties a few of the boxes and carries them through the grandish entrance. Dabbawalas are such a familiar sight that the security guard doesn’t even bother to look up as Kedari sidesteps the metal detector. He goes up to the third floor and drops off some boxes, and then up to the seventh, where he delivers one more.
From there it’s on to the Star TV Building. The lobby, all liquid-crystal screens and stars on the ceiling, looks more like the entrance to a nightclub than an office. These are some of the best addresses in Mumbai, yet Kedari strolls through them as if he owns the place, delivering the dabbas right to the secretary’s desk, or leaving them outside in the corridor. In all, he makes about a dozen stops.
A few hours later, he will return to pick up the empty dabbas ready for the return journey. At around 3pm, he finally has the chance to eat his own tiffin, prepared by his wife that morning.
“By the time I get mine,” he says with a shrug, “it’s cold.”
David Pilling is the FT’s Asia editor; Avantika Chilkoti is the FT’s Indonesia correspondent
Photographs: Nishant Shukla; Asmita Parelkar