The Tiffin Man

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Posted by Meeta K. Wolff

This Post was contributed by Bee from Jugal Bandi

When I lived and worked in Mumbai (Bombay), I was a lousy cook and a finicky vegan. Eating at the cafeteria or ordering from a restaurant for lunch was not really an option. I got my lunches delivered from Vijaya Venkat’s Health Awareness Centre.

Every afternoon at 12.30 sharp, my tiffin would arrive through a dabbawala (tiffin man) – one of the 5000 who deliver home-cooked food to 200,000 Mumbaiites at their workplaces.

Mumbai is perhaps the only city in the world, where someone brings you lunch at work from your own home. If you’re a non-Mumbaiite, you may wonder why people can’t carry their lunches to work.
It's part geography, part habit, part convenience.
In many homes, people leave for work early – around or before 8, and lunch is not ready by then. The dabbawala arrives usually between 8.30 and 9 a.m., giving whoever is preparing lunch more time to have it ready.

Mumbai is a linear series of connected islands spanning about 25 km in length, with the business district at the southern tip. It’s a big city with about 17 million people, and many of them have a commute of an hour or more to work, in local trains, packed like sardines. Map of Mumbai.
Mumbai has the highest rail passenger density in the world.

Overcrowding has grown to be a compelling problem. 4,700 passengers are packed into a 9-car rake during peak hours, as against the rated carrying capacity of 1,700. This has resulted in what is known as Super-Dense Crush Load of 14 to 16 standing passengers per square meter of floor space.

Carrying your lunch box with you with you is a real inconvenience.

To a Mumbaiite, a lunch box does not mean a sandwich and a fruit. It usually entails a stainless steel tiffin carrier with tiers of rice, rotis, veggies/meat, often yogurt, and a fruit/sweet.

Some time between 8.30 and 9 a.m., the dabbawalla will come to your door, and collect your lunchbox. He has 90 seconds to spend at your doorstep before going for his next collection. If your lunch is not packed yet, or you take too long to get to the door, he's gone.

The commute from North to South Mumbai takes an average person 1.5 hours just from home to work on a good day.
The dabbawalas have 3 hours to go door to door and pick 200,000 lunch boxes, sort them, make the journey through 25 kilometres of rail and 10 km of foot to bring it to your office by lunchtime.
Suburban trains between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. are called "dabbawala specials" 'cos the luggage compartments are full of crates with lunch boxes. Around noon, the roads of Mumbai are teeming with these guys weaving their way through traffic on their bicyles or pushcarts in the pouring rain or blazing sun.
Your lunchbox changes hands three or four times. They all look alike.

What differentiates one from the other is the code with yellow and red markings that ensures that the right one reaches the right desk in the right office. What does that code mean? Find out here and here. At around 2 p.m., he will take your dabba back and exchange it for the filled fresh one the next morning.

85% of the dabawalas are illiterate, 15% are semi-literate. They have been following this system for over a century, using their feet, bicycles, pushcarts, and rudimentary wooden crates to deliver the goods.
How they do it is the subject of business school dissertations at The Indian Institutes of Management, Harvard and Wharton.

According to a Forbes 1998 article, one mistake for every eight million deliveries is the norm. How do they achieve virtual six-sigma quality with zero documentation? For one, the system limits the routing and sorting to a few central points. Secondly, a simple color code determines not only packet routing but packet prioritising as lunches transfer from train to bicycle to foot.

To become a dabbawala, one has to be swift on one’s feet and bring a minimum initial capital investment of two bicycles, a wooden crate for the tiffins, at least one white cotton kurta-pyjama (shirt and trousers), and the trademark white Gandhi cap - a total investment of around 5000 rupees or 110 USD.

It's a co-operative system where there are no employers or employees. Each one is a shareholder, and groups of dabbwalas form autonomous units that work in tandem with each other. I have yet to see a female dabbawalli, perhaps because this job involves speed and lot of physical stamina to carry and transport those long wooden crates lined with tiffin boxes.

These men, whose reading skills are rudimentary, now lecture major corporations and business schools on the basics of supply chain management. Their system has served them well for 120 yers.

The dabbawalla is a unique part of the Mumbai landscape and a celebrity in his own right.

A Dabbawala explains his trade to Prince Charles. Two of them were invited to, and attended his wedding last year.

The last decade has seen them harness technology through the use of mobiles and SMS messaging to take orders.They've been recruited, in turn, by corporations like Microsoft, to distribute leaflets to campaign against software piracy.

South Asian communities in the U.S. are now trying to recreate the dabbawalla concept by delivering packed lunches to offices.

However, the Mumbai dabbawalas are in a class of their own. They move at the speed of light, and bring a smile to 200,000 people each day as they find their lunchboxes deposited without fail at their office lobbies each afternoon.

All pictures from

See The Painted Chef's sketch of the dabbawala.

A BBC feature.

The Independent, London on the Mumbai Dabbawala.

Our first event on the Daily Tiffin this month is Show Us Your Lunchbox. Hope you will join us and allow us to peak into your lunch. Deadline April 20th.

Are you interested in contributing to The Daily Tiffin? Drop us an email: We look forward to hearing your ideas.

This Post was written by Bee from Jugal Bandi


Bee, I really enjoyed this article. Thank you so much for your contribution and effort.

Meeta K. Wolff said...
April 12, 2007 at 8:39:00 AM GMT+2  

Gosh, we do have common paths crossin g somewhere, all this while I was thinking of starting Vijaya venkat;s dabba for hubby! After I had interviewed her for a feature, I quite fell in love with her ideas and principles.

And the dabba wala feature was interesting, you have an excellent choice of write ups!

Unknown said...
April 12, 2007 at 8:53:00 AM GMT+2  

This is one interesting much hard work goes into this,what a boon to the City of Mumbai, Thanks Bee for this article.

TNL said...
April 12, 2007 at 2:40:00 PM GMT+2  

nandita, just thought you may wanna know. vijaya venkat's food is good. i turned vegan just before i started ordering her tiffin.

i didn't like sweets until then, but the moment i turned hard core vegan, and low fat, i had this maniacal urge for sugar. its so hard to indulge in sweets when you are off dairy and fat.

i was miserable for a good while, and all i could think of all day and i night was, "what sweet can i eat?"

bee said...
April 12, 2007 at 3:34:00 PM GMT+2  

hey the dabbawala sure is a part of every(well almost) Bombayite!
I once saw a program on TV where they mentioned that to get the coveted post of the dabbawala is very tough, when a post becomes available the people from a specific village kind of 'inherit' the post.
And yes, they never misplaced my dabba!

Richa said...
April 12, 2007 at 6:14:00 PM GMT+2  

Great write up, Bee.

These guys prove that business skills go far beyond school degrees!

musical said...
April 13, 2007 at 5:09:00 AM GMT+2  

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