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Dabbawalas in action at a Mumbai Suburban Railway station.
A dabbawala (Marathi: डबबेवाले, Hindi: डबबावाला), literally, box person, see
Etymology), also spelled as dabbawalla or dabbawallah is a person in the Indian city of
Mumbai who is employed in a unique service industry whose primary business is
collecting the freshly cooked food in lunch boxes from the residences of the office
workers (mostly in the suburbs), delivering it to their respective workplaces and returning
back the empty boxes by using various modes of transport. "Tiffin" is an old-fashioned
English word for a light lunch, and sometimes for the box it is carried in. For this reason,
the dabbawalas are sometimes called Tiffin Wallahs.
• 1 Etymology and historical roots
• 2 Background and the delivery chain
• 3 The Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Trust
• 4 Economic analysis
• 5 Low-tech and lean
• 6 Uninterrupted services
• 7 Notes
• 8 References
• 9 External links
 Etymology and historical roots
The word "Dabbawala" in Marathi 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 of the preceding word. The closest meaning of the
Dabbawala in English would be the "lunch box delivery man". Though this profession
seems to be simple, it is actually a highly specialized service in Mumbai which is over a
century old and has become integral to the cultural life of this city.
The concept of the dabbawala originated when India was under British rule. Many
British people who came to the colony did not like the local food, so a service was set up
to bring lunch to these people in their workplace straight from their home. Nowadays,
although Indian business men are the main customers for the dabbawalas, increasingly
affluent families employ them instead for lunch delivery to their school-aged children.
Even though the services provided might include cooking, it primarily consists of only
delivery either home-made or in that latter case, food ordered from a restaurant.
 Background and the delivery chain
At 19,373 persons per km², Mumbai is India's most densely populated city with a huge
flow of traffic. Because of this, lengthy commutes to workplaces are common, with many
workers traveling by train.
Instead of going home for lunch or paying for a meal in a café, many office workers have
a cooked meal sent either from their home, or sometimes from a caterer who delivers it to
them as well, essentially cooking and delivering the meal in lunch boxes and then having
the lunch boxes collected and re-sent the next day. This is usually done for a monthly fee.
The meal is cooked in the morning and sent in lunch boxes carried by dabbawalas, who
have a complex association and hierarchy across the city.
A collecting Dabbawala on a bicycle
A collecting dabbawala, usually on bicycle, collects dabbas from homes or from the
dabba makers. The dabbas have some sort of distinguishing mark on them, such as a
color or symbol. 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 rail station to unload the boxes and the building address where the box has to
At each station, boxes are handed over to a local dabbawala, who delivers them. The
empty boxes, after lunch, are again collected and sent back to the respective houses.
 The Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Trust
This service was originated in 1880. In 1890, Mahadeo Havaji Bachche, started a lunch
delivery service with about 100 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 Carriers Association. The present President of the association
is Raghunath Medge. Nowadays, the service often includes cooking of foods in addition
to the delivery.
 Economic analysis
It is estimated that the dabbawala industry grows by 5-10% each year.
Each dabbawala, regardless of role, gets paid about two to four thousand rupees per
month (around £25–50 or US$40–80).
More than 175,000 or 200,000 lunch boxes get moved every day by an estimated 4,500 to
5,000 dabbawalas, all with an extremely small nominal fee and with utmost punctuality.
According to a recent survey, there is only one mistake in every 6,000,000 deliveries,
statistically equivalent to a Six Sigma (99.9999) rating
The BBC has produced a documentary on dabbawalas, and Prince Charles, during his
visit to India, visited them (he had to fit in with their schedule, since their timing was too
precise to permit any flexibility). Owing to the tremendous publicity, some of the
dabbawalas were invited to give guest lectures in 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.
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.
 Low-tech and lean
A typical dabbawala lunch.
A dabba, or Indian-style tiffin box.
Although the service remains essentially low-tech, with the barefoot delivery men as the
prime movers, the dabbawalas have started to embrace modern information technology,
and now allow booking for delivery through SMS. An on-line poll on the web site
ensures that customer feedback is given pride of place. The success of the system
depends on teamwork and time management that would be the envy of a modern
manager. Such is the dedication and commitment of the barely literate and barefoot
delivery men (there are only a few delivery women) who form links in the extensive
delivery chain, that there is no system of documentation at all. A simple colour coding
system doubles as an ID system for the destination and recipient. There are no multiple
elaborate layers of management either — just three layers. Each dabbawala is also
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 trademark Gandhi topi
(cap). The return on capital is ensured by monthly division of the earnings of each unit.
 Uninterrupted services
The service is uninterrupted even on the days of severe weather such as Mumbai's
characteristic monsoons. The local dabbawalas at the receiving and the sending ends are
known to the customers personally, so that there is no question of lack of trust. Also, they
are well accustomed to the local areas they cater to, which allows them to access any
destination with ease. Occasionally, people communicate between home and work by
putting messages inside the boxes. However, this was more common before the
accessibility of instant telecommunications.
1. ^ Pathak R.C. (1946, Reprint 2000). The Standard Dictionary of the Hindi
Language, Varanasi: Bhargava Book Depot,pp.300,680
2. ^ Bombay Dabbawalas go high-tech
3. ^ "Regardless of a dabbawala's function, everyone gets paid about two to four
thousand rupees per month (around 25-50 British pounds or 40-80 US dollars)."
from the website www.mydabbawala.com
4. ^ Management trends: The cult of the dabbawala from The Economist
5. ^ Amberish K Diwanji, "Dabbawallahs: Mumbai's best managed business",
Rediff.com, November 4, 2003
6. ^ In India, Grandma Cooks, They Deliver from The New York Times
7. ^ BBC News: India's tiffinwalas fuel economy