Mumbai “dabbawala” culture

I never thought I’d be sitting in Madrid, wishing that there was some “dabbawala” to bring me cheap, homemade, Indian food.

Dabbawala” literally translates to “guy with box”; in this case the box is a tiffin full of food. In India, although fast food is popular, Indians always crave home cooked Indian food and often choose it over street food or McDonald’s. Hectic working schedules make this practically impossible if you don’t have someone cooking for you every morning. Even if you do, the food is cold by lunch time and it doesn’t taste the same when reheated.

The joy of getting hot, home cooked food delivered to you like you’ve specified, at exactly the time you want, is priceless. Mumbai’s dabbawalas make it happen for a fee as little as Rs.250 a month (just over US$6). The food is collected either from homes or from a catering service, then taken to a point where they are color-sorted (the guys are generally illiterate), grouped according to location, and then delivered by train.

More than 200,000 lunches are delivered by about 5000 dabbawalas everyday with an amazing accuracy of menu and time; a recent survey says that they only make one mistake in every 6,000,000 deliveries. There is no day off for the dabbawalas, they have never gone on strike and harsh weather conditions — especially monsoon season — have never stopped them from doing their job well.

What has been awed about the dabbawalas is how they function so accurately, without the use of any modern technology — only recently they have begun accepting orders via SMS. The success of their system has called much attention from business schools as well as tourists and now they have a “Day with the Dabbawalas” itinerary where you can spend a day in Mumbai helping them out — something Richard Branson did on one of his visits to India.

They have been in business for 125 years and it’s one of the systems that truly represents how efficient an Indian city can be, if it wants to.