dabbawala; also spelled as dabbawalla or dabbawallah; is a profession in India, most commonly in Mumbai , who is part of a delivery system that collects hot food in lunch boxes from the residences of workers in the late morning, delivers the lunches to the workplace utilizing various modes of transport, predominantly bicycles and the rail trains, and returns the empty boxes back to the customer's residence that afternoon. They are also made use of by prominent meal suppliers in Mumbai where they ferry ready, cooked meals from central kitchens to the customers and back.

"Tiffin" is an Anglo-Indian word, derived from obsolete English slang "tiffing" (to sip), for a light lunch or afternoon snack, and sometimes, by extension, for the box it is carried in. For this reason, the dabbawalas are sometimes called tiffin wallahs.

Etymology and historical rootsEdit

The word "dabbawala" when literally translated, means "one who carries a box". "Dabba" means a box (usually a cylindrical tin or aluminium container), while "wala" is a suffix, denoting a doer or holder of the preceding word. The closest meaning of the dabbawala in English would be the "lunch box delivery man".

The Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers TrustEdit

In 1890, 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 Raghunath Medge.

Supply chainEdit

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 illiterate, the dabbas have some sort of distinguishing mark on them, such as a colour or group of symbols.

The dabbawala then takes them to a designated sorting place, where he and other collecting dabbawalas sort (and sometimes bundle) 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.

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.

Appearance and codingEdit

Lunch boxes are usually marked in several ways: (1) abbreviations for collection points, (2) colour code for starting station, (3) number for destination station and (4) markings for handling dabbawala at destination, building and floor.

It was estimated in 2007 that the dabbawala industry was still growing by 5-10% per annum.

The dabbawalas have started to embrace technology, and now allow for delivery requests through SMS . 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.

Uninterrupted servicesEdit

The service is almost always uninterrupted, even on the days of severe weather such as monsoons. The local dabbawalas and population know each other well, and often form bonds of trust. Dabbawalas are generally well accustomed to the local areas they cater to, and use shortcuts and other low profile routes to deliver their goods on time. Occasionally, people communicate between home and work by putting messages inside the boxes; however, with the rise of instant communication such as SMS and instant messaging, this trend is vanishing. Since 1890, when the dabbawalas formally came into existence, none of them had ever gone on strike until 2011 when the members decided to head towards Azad Maidan to support Anna Hazare in his campaign against corruption.

Economic analysisEdit

Each dabbawala, regardless of role, is paid about eight thousand rupees per month. Between 175,000 and 200,000 lunch boxes are moved by 4,500 to 5,000 dabbawalas, all with an extremely small nominal fee and with utmost punctuality.

It is frequently claimed that dabbawalas make less than one mistake in every six million deliveries. However, this error rate is conservative as it is estimated 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', 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."

The BBC has produced a documentary on dabbawalas and Prince Charles visited them during his visit to India; he had to fit in with their schedule, since their timing was too precise to permit any flexibility. Charles also invited them to his wedding with Camilla Parker Bowles in London on 9 April 2005. Owing to the tremendous publicity, some of the dabbawalas were invited to give guest lectures in some of the top business schools of India, which is very unusual. Most remarkably in the eyes of many Westerners, the success of the dabbawala trade has involved no advanced technology, except for trains (and as mentioned above, SMS services for booking).

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.

Awards and recognitionEdit

Six Sigma mythEdit

It has been frequently asserted that dabbawalas were awarded a Six Sigma certification by Forbes magazine. This is a myth perpetuated by the news media who inferred the accreditation from the 1998 article in Forbes. In 2007, an explanation was provided by the lead author of the article, Subrata Chakravarty in a private email correspondence to Gauri Sanjeev Pathak:

"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 3.4 errors per million 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 3.4 error-per-million 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

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