Dabbawala: Connecting People

The article is being shared by Swapnil Zunke ,PGP 2015-17 student of IIM Kashipur

When we think of any tiffin or lunchbox service provider, the first name that would strike our mind is that of “The Dabbawala” which is popular all over the world for delivering home cooked food in dabbas i.e. Lunchbox to around 130,000 people in the city of Mumbai, India. The lunchboxes are delivered by 5000 individuals called as dabbawalas and they have been running this service from the past 120 years. Through these years, Mumbai has changed a lot, yet the approach by the dabbawala’s have been the same as it was during its initiation. The dabbawala will pick up dabba’s from the households who prepare it, which is then delivered by them to the destination point i.e. the requisite office and returning them to their originating points i.e. households. Moreover this excellent operation of providing dabba is carried out without the use of technological devices like computers or mobiles. The whole process is carried out within 6 hours of the day, for 6 days a week and 51 weeks of a year, completing nearly 260,000 transactions with errors as low as that of a six sigma processes in its operation.

Due to its quality functioning, it has gained the attention of many renowned personalities like Britain’s prince Charles, Sir Richard Branson of virgin group and executives of delivery companies like FedEx. To understand how this supply chain management of Dabbawala works, many people from all over the world have come to Mumbai for scrutinizing it, and also documentaries as well as books are written on it. About 200 groups work synchronously throughout the city, each having a particular area and a set of customer while profit is shared equally among the group members. Each group elects their representative amongst them, to solve any issue or tackle any problem affecting the whole group.

Anil joshi, the advisor of dabbawala had setup an online website which included the payment gateway facility for online booking of dabbas and started a cell phone texting service for other enquiries as well as confronting the issues and challenges faced by the dabbawalas. In 2010, Anil Joshi upgraded the system for inclusion of new ideas under the guidance of Raghunath Medge and Sopan mare, the head of the two governing committee of the dabbawalaa. The website gained popularity due to media, corporate and academic interest, but the website was not complete as there was no system in place to monitor an inquiry or complaint reaching the appropriate dabbawala. Also dabbawalas were not used to technology and their philosophy was, serving food is like serving god, and chose to focus on it.

The dabbawalas set up their foundation in the year 1980, when one of the delivery man Mahadev Haji Bache saw an opportunity in this business. In 1890 he setup the business with the help of some 35 farmers from a village near the city Pune. The idea of setting up this business came into his mind when he used to work as a delivery man for a Mumbai banker for picking up the lunch box from his home and delivering to his office and then returning back to the office. The deliveryman was paid a regular income for delivering dabba to customers in Mumbai, taking an advantage of city’s railway system. Word of mouth was the common way of acquiring new customers. Their white Mahatma Gandhi caps, handcarts and distinctive bicycles were the only way of their advertisement. As we are well aware that Mumbai is place of mixed culture where people need food according to their demands and needs, Dabbawala provided the same, thus satisfying the customer.

Earlier, a dabbawala was in charge of a particular area, under him 15-20 local delivery boys who were paid a monthly salary worked. But in 1983 the dabbawalas moved to owner partner system based on profit sharing model. Women in dabbawala system mostly performed administrative functions. Members working for more than 10-15 years were regarded as Muqaddams or supervisor. This muqaddams were given a task along with delivering dabba such as helping in troubleshooting, resolve disputes, loading and unloading, collection and payments. The Muqaddams could also contest elections for becoming the member of one of the two committee – The operational committee and the charitable trust.

New members are recruited from only about 30 villages in and around Pune. They are hired on a probation period of six months, after which they become permanent member. For the first six months they are paid Rs.3000 and the criteria is simple for recruitment, only those who have no education or job can apply for dabbawala, also if the person is not able to perform properly then two or three chances are given after that he is thrown out of the system. Individual dabbawalas are responsible for negotiating the price with the customers, maintaining the pricing guidelines setup by the management, which factored in the average weight of the dabba, the distance between the residence and the office and the distance between the office and the closest railway station. Mumbai monthly revenue for year 2004 was about 67 crores.

The dabbawalas which are popularly known as the warriors of the street, have no written records of customers’ home address but still they are connected to each other by something called as a Dabba. The dabbawala works on a coding system for the delivery as well as returning the dabba to its original destination, similar coding model were hired by FedEx as well as airlines. The popularity of Dabbawala is increasing day by day as it is more concentrated on providing home cooked food satisfying the needs of the customer rather than concentrating on technology and thus connecting the hearts of the people. The dabbawala’s not only satisfy the customer but also have become the source of income for many of the less or uneducated people, thus also helping India to take a lucrative step towards development.



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