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DABBAWALLAHS OF MUMBAI (A)
Dabba was a generic, colloquial term used explicitly in Mumbai to describe any cylindrical box. In the context of meal delivery service, a dabba was an aluminum box carried by its handle like a tin of paint. Each dabba housed three to four interlocking steel containers and was held together by a collapsible metallic wire handle. Each of these containers accommodated an individual food item found in a typical midday lunch. Wallah was a label for a tradesperson in a particular profession. For example, a paperwallah was an individual who delivered newspapers. Taken together, a dabbawallah was a courier who picked up a lunch-full dabba from a client's home in the morning, left it outside of the client's workplace for pick-up, retrieved the empty dabba after the lunch was consumed and returned the empty dabba to the client's home in the evening.
On November 7, 2003, Raghunath Medge, president of the Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust (The Trust), had just returned to his office in suburban Mumbai after meeting with Britain’s Prince Charles who was on an official visit to India’s commercial capital.
The Trust was the managing organization of the dabbawallah meal delivery network. The dabbawallahs' service, often referred to as tiffinwallahs outside of Mumbai, was cited internationally by management scholars and industry executives as an exemplar of supply chain and service management. The service had acquired a reputation for its delivery reliability in Mumbai. International interest in the dabbawallahs was largely due to a 1998 article published in Forbes:
Mumbai's "tiffinwallahs" have achieved a level of service to which Western businesses can only aspire. "Efficient organization" is not the first thought that comes to mind in India, but when the profit motive is given free rein, anything is possible. To appreciate Indian efficiency at its best, watch the tiffinwallahs at work. Documentaries on the dabbawallahs were produced by the BBC, M1V and ZEE Tv, and their delivery performance earned them recognition in the Guinness Book of World Records and Ripley's Believe It or Not!
Medge, who had personally demonstrated to Prince Charles how the dabbawallah meal delivery system worked, was himself in the spotlight of late. He had recently been invited by the Confederation of Indian Industry to speak to its members at a leadership summit in a special module titled "Leading Without Suits and Ties." He was also approached by human resource executives and asked to present seminars on team building. Additionally, he was asked by corporations, such as Siemens India, to make a presentation to their employees on the dabbawallahs' working practices. Finally, he was also regularly sought by the print and television media within and outside of India.
The dabbawallah service had begun informally in 1890 in Mumbai. According to Medge: A Parsi banker working in Ballard Pier employed a young man, who came down from the Poona district to fetch his lunch every day. Business picked up through referrals and soon our pioneer dabba-carrying entrepreneur had to call for more helping hands from his village. Such was the origin of the dabbawallahs.
However trivial the task may sound, it is of vital importance since havoc is caused if the client had to skip his home-cooked food or worse, carry the dabba himself in the ever so crowded Mumbai trains during the rush hour! By the early 20th century, people from all parts of India were migrating to Mumbai in large numbers. Once they found a source of livelihood and settled down, they wanted home-cooked food at their workplaces. Home-cooked food had a comfort level for various reasons. First, the food was prepared in the ambience of a domestic kitchen, with recipes that were tried and tested, and that resulted in familiar fare. Second, homecooked food was comparatively inexpensive. The dabbawallahs were initially...