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Food for a city

In service for more than 100 years, Mumbai's dabbawalas have been in the news lately for their precision and punctuality. V. GANGADHAR profiles the men who ensure that the city's workers are fed on time.


BY 9.30 am, Sarla Kapadia, housewife in Kandivili (a Mumbai suburb) up since 5 am, can lean back and relax. Her morning chores are over. Two-school going children have been sent off with packed lunches. The aluminium lunch containers have been taken away by the pyjama-kurta-Gandhi cap clad dabbawala and will reach the Nariman Point offices, 35 km away around noon, where her husband and 22-year-old daughter work.

"They will eat fresh, warm home-cooked food," explained Kapadia. "The dabbawala never misses his address and is never absent." A view shared by nearly 1,75,000 satisfied customers. "You can bring your own packed lunch from home, but it will only be sandwiches or roti-sabji and is not really satisfying," pointed out Govind Ranade, a state government employee. "Eating restaurant food is expensive and may lead to health problems. There is nothing like home-cooked food."

The dabbawala service is 113 years old and operates with an efficiency and punctuality, hard to beat. Forbes magazine gave the system a "6 sigma" rating for precision, its accuracy being 99.99 per cent! The documentary on the Mumbai dabbawala shown on the BBC channel was a hit. No wonder, Britain's Prince Charles wanted to meet the men who formed the system.

According to veteran dabbawalas it was the British and the Parsis who introduced and encouraged a system, by which they could enjoy home food for lunch. Bombay did not have many restaurants then. The 100-odd dabbas of those days were carried around in horse drawn trams and delivered in the Fort area, which housed important offices. Today, the 5,000-strong dabbawala force (there are a handful of women too) uses handcarts, fast and slow local trains and strong wooden racks to carry the dabbas. It is tough work, carrying 30 dabbas in a rack for a monthly salary of Rs. 5,000.

The men who did the rounds came from villages like Ambegaon and Rajguru Nagar in the Junnai taluka of Pune district. The unemployed youth from this region came to the city and were engaged in the trade. Now, it has become hereditary, but the old dedication and sense of pride remains intact.

The work is known for its ingenuity, special codes and markings. The aluminium dabba had a "3" marked at the centre indicating its destination, Nariman Point. Along its sides, in red were written "12 MT 7" indicating 12th floor, office number 7 at Mittal Tower. The "10" at the bottom meant that the dabba had to be unloaded at Churchgate and the "K" adjoining the "10" stood for the suburb Kandivili, the home of the dabba. A new dabbawala is initiated into his work by a couple of his seniors who take him along on his routes and explain the codes.

In a city where the names of roads and even buildings changed often, the dabbawalas had their own names and identifying marks. Apeejay House near Churchgate station was known as "Zendka" office and SNDT university buildings were "Khamba ka" office because both of them had flag posts. The Life Insurance Corporation office at Nariman Point, because of its curved structure was identified as "Vakda", while the Income Tax offices at Marine Drive because of its colour was known as "Lal" (red).

A lot of ingenuity has gone into the names and marks of identification. Add to this, a record of no strikes and delivering the goods even during the rainiest days of the monsoon. Precision, ingenuity and results were the hallmarks of good management. Representatives of the dabbawala association were invited to deliver lectures on these topics on India's prestigious management schools. Explained, Raghunath Megde, president of the association, "In January 2004, we are going to the IIM, Lucknow. Our men have given talks at the IIM, Ahmedabad and Pune's Symbiosis Institute of Management and organised a session at the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII)".

Times do change but the dabbawala trade has kept up with the changes. Today's tiffin boxes are sleeker than the huge, unwieldy copper boxes of the past. During the 1980s, it used to be Rs. 50 but today the rates are Rs. 250 per dabba. But certain things have not changed — the dress, the dedication and the punctuality.

The dabbawala does not feel threatened by the latest trends in catering. "Let the youngsters eat junk food," declared Jayasingh Ghorpade. "Our targets are the office and factory workers. Occasionally, they may stop our services and opt to eat at the canteen/restaurant. But in three months or less, they are back."

Agrees Sarla Kapadia: "When telephone services were considered a luxury, I used to put little chits for him in the tiffin box. And my husband told me he enjoyed the chits as much as the food!"

No doubt, Prince Charles had words of praise for the Mumbai dabbawalas. He must have wondered if they could deliver home food from Buckingham Palace. Well, given proper transport arrangements, the dabbawalas might have done that too!

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