A dabbawala, also spelled as dabbawalla or dabbawallah; literally meaning box person, is a person in India, most commonly found in the 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 the empty boxes back to the customer’s residence by using various modes of transport.
A collecting dabbawala on a bicycle
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 essentially cooks and delivers the meal in lunch boxes and then have the empty lunch boxes collected and re-sent the same 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 of Mumbai.
In the morning, a collecting dabbawala, usually on bicycle, collects dabbas either from a worker’s home or from the dabba makers. The dabbas have some sort of distinguishing mark on them, such as a colour or symbol.
The dabbawala then takes them to a designated sorting place, where he and other collecting dabbawalas sort and 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. The markings include the rail station to unload the boxes and the building address where the box has to be delivered.
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 barely literate and barefoot delivery men form links in the extensive delivery chain, there is no system of documentation at all. A simple colour coding system doubles as an identification 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 dabbas, white cotton kurta-pyjamas, and the white trademark Gandhi cap called a topi. The return on capital is ensured by monthly division of the earnings of each unit. Each dabbawala, regardless of role, gets paid about two to four thousand rupees per month. That equates to around £25–50 or US$40–80.
A typical home-cooked lunch delivered by a dabbawala
In 2002, Forbes Magazine found its reliability to be that of a six sigma standard — a standard method which seeks to improve the quality of process outputs by identifying and removing the causes of defects or errors and minimizing variability in manufacturing and business processes. It is a standard that is only given to an industry which makes less than one mistake every 3,4 million tasks.
More than 175,000 to 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, the dabbawalas make less than one mistake in every 6 million deliveries, despite most of the delivery staff being illiterate. That works out to an accuracy level of 99,9996%.
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