Dabbawalla is a name that is familiar to Bombayites. The word "Dabbawala" is literally translated as "one who carries a box"; "Dabba" means a box (usually an cylindrical aluminium container), while "wala" is a term of reference to the “man". Though the profession at first glance seems to be simple, it is actually a highly specialized trade that is over a century old and has become a part of Mumbai's culture.
He is the man, on whom you rely to deliver a piping hot lunch or tiffin from your home as far as 60 miles away, to reach your office in downtown Mumbai.
A population of 18 million inhabitants and long commutes from home to office by train has given rise to this service industry that is little known outside Mumbai. By mid morning, the dabbawalla will collect your daily lunch, packed in stainless steel (or aluminium) insulated circular “dabbas” from your home and ensure delivery at your workplace just before 1 p.m. The empty lunch box is then collected around 2 p.m. and returned to the sender well before the office worker gets home. All this for a small fee…Before the days of mobile phones, the housewife used the dabba system to communicate with the husband at work by inserting notes into the lunch box.
The collecting dabbawalla, usually on a bicycle goes from home to home collecting the lunch boxes. The boxes are then taken to a central sorting place where the boxes are sorted by destination area. Exchange of boxes takes place and the dabbawalla is on his way by local train. The Mumbai rail network provides for a separate carriage just for the dabbawala. The dabbawalla doing the final delivery is familiar with every building, and location in the part of the city he operates in.
Logistics is a terms that is much used and abused these days. Every shipping line, airline, manufacturer and cargo consolidator talks of vendor management and logistics supported by advanced software systems. The illiterate dabbawalla’s have been doing this for years. The lunch boxes are colour coded in a manner that only the dabbawalla can understand. The coding tells the dabbawalla, the sorting location, the destination location, the building, office number and the return address. There are no names and addresses on the boxes.!! Suprisingly the percentage of mis-delivered boxes is negligible. The American business magazine Forbes gave a Six Sigma performance rating for the precision of dabbawalas. This rating indicates a 99.999999 % accuracy of correctness, meaning one error in every six million transactions .Regardless of function and position in the hierarchy each dabbawalla is paid about Rs 4000 p.m. More than 250,000-300,000 lunches get moved every day by an estimated 4,500-5,000 dabbawalas..
The dabbawallas have been practicing their art for a century. Prince Charles took time from his busy schedule in Mumbai to meet the dabbawalla. The Prince had to adjust his schedule to that of the dabbawalla as they had no slack in their daily schedule. So impressed was he, that representatives from the dabbawalla were invited to attend his wedding to Camelia Bolwes.
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