Home DestinationsAsia It’s a Good Day to Bombay: My Day with the Dabbawallas!

It’s a Good Day to Bombay: My Day with the Dabbawallas!

by Sandy

Dressed in their white kurta pajamas and traditional Gandhi caps, Mumbai’s fabled army of dabbawallas has been satisfying the hunger of the city’s commuters daily since 1890.  A minor miracle of logistics, this carefully-choreographed tiffin service is celebrated around the world and has even been studied by the likes of Harvard Business School.  In fact, this Indian meal service is so efficient that it is the envy of FedEx! Maybe you’ve never heard of the dabbawallas and that’s okay.  You have now and I’m here to help explain how it all works.  So, let’s get into it!

Dressed in their white kurta pajamas and traditional Gandhi caps, Mumbai’s fabled army of dabbawallas has been satisfying the hunger of 300,000 commuters daily since 1890.

But, first:  Yes, I’m old enough to remember when Bombay was called Bombay.  Unsurprisingly, like millions and millions of other people, including Indian people, that’s what I still call it.  At least most of the time.  Renamed for political reasons, Bombay officially became Mumbai in 1995.  But that’s another story for another time.

Yes, I’m old enough to remember when Bombay was called Bombay. Like millions of other people, including Indian people, that’s what I still call it.  Pictured here is the Gateway of India.

Like I was saying, Mumbai’s dabbawallas (literally translated, it means ‘one who carries a box’) have worked tirelessly for more than 130 years to deliver hot, delicious lunches to office workers throughout the city.  Timeliness is crucial.  Each dabbawalla’s route is meticulously mapped and managed. Lunchboxes must reach the client by 1:00 p.m. and it can take up to three hours to deliver them.  If you see a dabbawalla in the street, you give way.

If you see a dabbawalla in the street, you give way.  This is Sunil!

Despite relying on a largely unskilled workforce, a simple two-tier management system and nothing more high tech than Mumbai’s rail network, this 5,000-strong cooperative is recognized as one of the world’s most efficient logistics systems. Even Richard Branson spent a day learning the secrets of the dabbawallas.  Today, it was my turn.  I got to tag along to see how it all goes down and it went a little something like this…

Today, I got to see how it all goes down and it went a little something like this…

Meet Kiran Gavande, y’all!

Meet Kiran Gavande, y’all! Kiran is kind of a big deal within the dabbawalla organization and he is my partner for morning lunchbox collection.

Kiran is kind of a big deal within the dabbawalla organization. Every morning, six days a week, Kiran criss-crosses the lower Parel neighborhood of Mumbai on his bicycle collecting lunchboxes from his customers.  Lucky for me, Kiran is my partner for morning pickup service.  Let’s roll, Kiran!

Together, we go door to door collecting lunchboxes.  Once our task is done, we meet up with a few other wallas, including Sunil who is pictured center and closest to me.  Sunil is the walla I will work with to deliver lunches this afternoon. Once all of the bags were tied together and ready to move, we set off for the Dadar train station.

 Our next destination?  The centralized sorting station across from Churchgate!

Our next destination?  The centralized sorting station across from Churchgate!

Covered in bags, we make our way to the platform.  There, we meet up with a whole bunch of other wallas with a whole bunch more bags.  Bags on heads, bags in hands, bags on bikes.  Bags on bags on bags!  It is nothing short of incredible that each individual lunch will be delivered safely and on time.

A complete mess, right?  Wrong!  Using a sophisticated system of numbers and colors, each dabbawalla can easily identify the destination of every single lunch.

A complete mess, right?  Wrong!  Using a sophisticated system of numbers and colors, each dabbawalla can easily identify the destination of every single lunch.  (Many wallas can’t read, which is why numbers and colors are used.)   Each meal is delivered to the correct owner on time, monsoon or shine.  Of the 300,000 meals delivered every day, less than 400 per year are delayed. That’s an error rate of one in 16,000,000 transactions, or a 99.99966 success rate, y’all!   Unbelievable? Well, it’s true.  Ready to hear another truth:  Mumbai’s Dabbawallas have never resorted to striking or been involved in any police or court case. Ever.

Each meal is delivered to the correct owner on time, monsoon or shine.

Once the train arrived, we picked up our bags and boarded one of the baggage compartment cars.  There was precious little seating.  For the next 25 minutes, most everyone either sat on the floor or leaned against a wall, happily chatting away in a language I didn’t understand.  It was cramped.  It was crazy.  And I loved every single minute of it!

Undoubtedly, one of my favorite moments was running across several lanes of oncoming traffic while leaping over a couple of concrete barriers to make it to the sorting station.

Undoubtedly, one of my favorite moments was running across several lanes of oncoming traffic and leaping over a couple of concrete barriers to make it to the sorting station.  Upon arrival, bags were further sorted and arranged for the final time.  Soon enough, it was time to say goodbye to Kiran, and then Sunil and I set off to deliver our lunches.

Soon enough, it was time to say goodbye to Kiran and Sunil and I were set off on our delivery route.

Bags on heads, bags in hands, bags on bikes, bags in carts, everyone has their own method of delivery.  Sunil and I went door to door until each lunch bag arrived safe and sound to its owner.

Bags on heads, bags in hands, bags on bikes, bags in carts, everyone has their own method of delivery.

By now, you might be wondering how (and why!) the dabbawallas still exist in today’s modern world.  For one thing, eating lunch is not an easy thing to do here.  It isn’t only a problem of money but of actually finding good food at or near your office. Getting around Bombay can be quite difficult and time-consuming. Average commuting time is one to two hours each way.

The train was cramped. It was crazy. And I loved every single minute of it!

So, what’s the big deal?  Can’t you just throw a sandwich in your work bag?  Nope!  In India, a sandwich or salad is not lunch. And, in the sprawling metropolis of Mumbai, why eat a cold sandwich when you can have a hot lunch that’s been lovingly prepared from home and delivered straight to your desk.  Granny cooks, dabbawallas deliver!

Granny cooks, dabbawallas deliver!

For another thing, service is guaranteed.  Even during the torrential rains of the monsoon season, your hot, delicious meal lovingly cooked by your granny will still show up on time. This service is not only extremely reliable, it’s very cheap.  For around $10 a month, everyone from the security guard to the CEO can have a fresh lunch delivered to their door.

Today was a masterclass on individual responsibility and team leadership.

Deep thoughts and key takeaways from my day with the dabbawallas.

Waking up in Bombay this morning, I expected to have some fun.  And I certainly did!  But what I didn’t expect was to walk away inspired.  Success in life is not handed to you; it is earned. Today was a masterclass on individual responsibility and team leadership.  The core values behind the spectacular success of the dabbawallas are simple:  Passion, commitment, consistency, execution, respect and time management.  Old school values are still relevant as beautiful demonstrated by the dabbawallas.

as you can see, Sunil really appreciated my help and will, in all likelihood, be lost without me.  Bombay, you can exhale now.  Love & bacon, Sandy

Forget about Uber Eats and Deliveroo, y’all.  Mumbai’s impeccably organized, 130-year-old delivery system wins!  Speaking of teamwork, as you can see, Sunil really appreciated my help and will, in all likelihood, be lost without me.  Bombay, you can exhale now.  Love & bacon, Sandy

 

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