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Wherever you maybe staying in Mumbai, in which ever corner you maybe having your place of work in this largest Indian metropolis of 16 million populations, you never ever fail to receive home food in time for lunch. Thanks to the network of "dabawallas" - tiffin-carriers, that has been functioning in an amazing way for more then 100 years and recognized as the best case of network management in the world even by the management gurus.

This is the saga of "dabawalla'-the tiffin-carrier guy who picks up the lunch-box in the morning and unfailingly delivers it on time to your place of work, wherever it maybe in Mumbai, at a highly economic price. Daily about 200,000 meals are delivered by this system at an average cost of Rs. 325 (US $ 7) per month. Some may find his task trivial in the overall scheme of things but his clients will willingly testify on his importance of daily receiving home-cooked food so lovingly cooked by the mother, wife or sister at their place of work.

You can't fail to marvel at their system, with an annual turnover of Rs. 50,000,000 (US $ 10 million) and 4,500 carriers who meet and exchange tiffin-boxes at public places like railway station, etc. without ever causing a jam or any confusion. Just like a well-oiled Olympic relay team. Lunch-boxes are sorted and exchanged in a jiffy, with absolutely zero documentation involved. Yet rarely it has happened that a lunch has missed its destined belly.

Though most of the tiffin-carriers are illiterate they are the ultimate practitioners of logistics management like the apostles of the hub-and-spoke game plan, Just-in-Time tactics and Supply Chain Management principles. They seem to be following these strategies long before these terms were even coined.

The history of tiffin box carriers run parallel to the history of Mumbai's development. Saddled with growing population in the late19th century, new settlements -- further from the original in the old Fort complex, started cropping up in Mumbai. Ballard Pier and Fort still remained the business centers though, as they housed most of the banks, government departments, insurance houses, shipping companies, etc.

As residential colonies kept moving further from the Fort, a lot of office goers started finding it difficult to go home for their lunch in the afternoons. Carrying lunch boxes while leaving home in the morning was not exactly fashionable.

In 1890, a Parsi broker working in a Ballard pier employed a young man, who had come down from Pune district, to fetch his lunch every afternoon. Business picked up through referrals and soon the pioneer tiffin-carrying entrepreneur had to call for more helping hands from his village. Though there were no umbrella organizations for the carriers then, the first informal attempt to unionize was made by Mahadev Havji Bacche in 1930. A charitable trust was registered n 1956 under the name of "Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Trust". Even today every carrier is expected to contribute Rs 15 (US $ 0.30) per month towards the trust.

The commercial arm was registered quite later in 1968 as "Mumbai Tiffin Box Carriers Association". With recruitment essentially being through word of mouth, the majority of the carriers hail from neighboring towns and villages in Western Maharashtra. They have a strong social bond, common language and pride in what they do. The strength of the system depends on common protocols, disciplines and a shared agenda. The recruitment policy is such that even before a new recruit leaves his hometown for Mumbai, his area of operation and remuneration are decided. Typically a carrier averages around Rs 4000 (US $ 85) per month and this is attracting a lot of educated youth who are finding it tough to break into the white-collar ranks of the city.

As every tiffin-box had to travel to and fro, mapping every box to its carrier was crucial. For this purpose, some carriers started tying string to their boxes while others used colourful wires & threads. But soon these methods were found inadequate as the number of tiffin boxes grew exponentially. So in the early 1970s, the senior founder members of the Association decided to implement a new system of working where box codes and markings were uniform for all carriers.

For example if a client is residential of Dadar and his office is located on the third floor of Mafatlal Centre at Nariman Point, the code would be something as:
9 MX 3 on top, where 9 points to the carrier who delivers in Nariman point, MX for Mafatlal Centre and 3 for third floor.

The number 10 below it, where 10 is the code for Churchgate station where the box is offloaded.

Followed by alphabet D, where D stands for Dadar, the railway station of origin.

So whenever the tiffin-box is collected from client's residence and brought to Dadar railway station, it is kept with the boxes headed for Churchgate station. At Churchgate, the carrier whose code is 9, picks up all the boxes marked for him and proceeds for Nariman Point. In Mafatlal Centre he lives this particular box outside the lift or outside the client's office on the third floor. During his lunchtime, the client fetches his tiffin-box, completes his lunch and puts the empty box in the same place outside the lift for the carrier to collect it back. The return journey takes the same route.

There is hardly any daily contact with the client. The carrier meets the client only on the first day of the delivery to verify the address and to show the spot where the boxes will be kept.

A daily exercise of this scale runs successfully only in Mumbai due to the three factors: plentiful commuters, presence of an efficient and widespread railway networks and large distances between places or residents and work and ofcourse the " dabawallas" and their indigenous operational system.

Text & Photos by : Rajesh Vora / Dinodia Photo Library.

(With inputs from Ajay J. Thokal's project report on "Logistics and customer's satisfaction of Nutan Mumbai Tiffin-Box Suppliers Association).

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