Mumbai's Dabbawallas
A few years back I wrote a piece on the Dabbawallas for Monocle magazine. Here's my original edit for the piece:

HOT LUNCH by Meena Kadri

The Dabbawallah's of Mumbai comprise of 5000 workers who have become a national icon. Their management and distribution system has attracted the attention of international business schools and they have received a Sigma 6 rating from the Forbes Group, putting them in the company of global corporates. Their mission? To efficiently deliver around 300, 000 lovingly prepared lunches per day from homes to offices which they do through a system employing trains, hand-carts and bicycles that was first devised over a century ago. However a rapidly modernising Mumbai poses fresh challenges.

Raghunath Medge, a key member of the dabbawallah’s co-operative, emphasises that they have had to innovate their offerings to maintain business growth. “We have new initiatives such as our express delivery service, sms and internet ordering,” to which he adds with pride their intention to explore the delivery of other items such as groceries. Novel tie-ups with advertisers to deliver client branded table mats have also successfully boosted revenue.

The lunches continued to be packed at home into India’s ubiquitous sturdy and stackable metal containers. (dabba = container, wallah = worker) From the moment they are collected by the local dabbawallah they enter a fast paced zoned system which has been adapted to the conditions of the metropolis rather than being introduced externally. “The dabba will be transported through this system, its contents consumed and its return journey ensured while passing through the hands of up to six wallahs in each direction,” tells DK Choudhary who has been one set of those hands for over 55 years. “Though the system continues to be adapted – reliability is our constant aim.”

Originally a service for the elite, middle class Mumbaikers now form the dabbawallah’s client majority. However the diversity of India means that they are far from a homogenous group – speaking a host of languages, adhering to a number of faiths and most importantly following markedly different dietary practices. This places greater pressure on the accuracy of delivery which stands at less than six errors per million transactions. Added to this is the more recent revolution in eating habits of health conscious executives. Medge notes that delivery from diet centres has become a popular addition to their services.

The dabbawallah’s ever-evolving role in the smooth functioning of the mega-city has attracted visits from the likes of Prince Charles and Richard Branson. Or perhaps they were just after a hot lunch?

Many of these images were taken while researching my correspondent piece for Radio New Zealand. You can read a more in-depth article & slideshow from a writer for the New York Times and my piece on their coding system at Random Specific.
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