What more can be said about Mumbai and its hustle-bustle that has not been said before. It is the city that never sleeps, it is also the city of dreams. Lakhs and lakhs of people arrive here every day, in search of a better life. And although, some can find the city ruthless at times, there are plenty who work tirelessly to ensure your life in the city is a tad easier. The ‘dabbawalahs’ of Mumbai are renowned for their efficient service and punctuality. These are men and women, who have been delivering meals in their old-timey steel dabbas since forever now. Whether you are in office, or home or any other nook and corner of the city, if you have subscribed to their service, they will reach you on time, without fail, come rain or shine. The ‘dabbawalahs’ have also grabbed eyeballs on an international level for their lunch delivery and return system. It offers as a great means of employment for those belonging to those who are school drop-outs, or those who are financially not as well off.  

Dabbawalahs: A Brief History

With the sudden boom in working population of Mumbai in the late 1800s, there was no provision for people to grab a quick lunch outside of the office and then resume work. Which is why they would often go hungry. 

There weren’t as many restaurants or cabins that were providing good and healthy meals, as today. Besides that, this population was mixed. Even though people from different communities and ethnicities had arrived from their hometown to work in one of the best developed cities of the country, they desired their food in a certain way, they craved a certain homely touch.  

In the year 1890, Mahadeo Havaji Bacche came up with a genius idea of starting a lunch delivery system in Bombay. He employed over a hundred men, who would pick up boxes from homes and deliver it to the destination. The service was very successful. In 1939, the dabbawallahs were informally unionised, the pay was decided, so were the monthly leaves. In the year 1956, a charitable trust was registered under the name of Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Trust. In 1968, the commercial arm of this trust, the Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Association was established.

How Do Dabbawallahs Work?

The Dabbawallahs dressed in their modest white unform and Gandhi topis, collect their dabbas comprising only home-cooked meals late in the morning and deliver it to respective destinations right around lunch time. Later they also carry back the empty tiffin boxes, therefore, avoiding a significant amount of plastic pollution. The tiffins are often coded to avoid risk of confusion. It is either labelled with colour coded tags based on station, collection points, destination station, or building number floors etc.  

A dabbawallah typically collects food on his bicycle, from dabbamakers. He then takes them to the sorting place, where all other dabbas also arrive. Then these lunch boxes are sorted in groups. These boxes are then put in coaches of local trains with their colour-coded labels to identify the destination of the boxes.

At each station, a local dabbawalah receives the lunchbox that fall under his territory. He delivers the boxes to the destinations, the empty boxes are then collected later in the day after lunch and sent back to respective houses.  

The dabbawallahs are also slowly adapting to the modern times, and now delivery requests are also taken through SMSes.