For more than 100 years, Mumbai’s famous lunchbox delivery men have brought thousands of home-cooked meals each day from residences on the outskirts of the city to workers in the center.
The men – called dabbawallas – use a complex delivery system that’s been studied by academics around the world, including Harvard Business School. The men themselves, with their trademark white shirts and caps, are a familiar sight in Mumbai, and they have been featured in the Bollywood movie, “The Lunchbox.”
But despite their renown, the dabbawallas have been struggling to keep up with the plethora of food-delivery apps and services and changing tastes in India’s most cosmopolitan city. In recent months, they’ve launched a new website, added scooters to speed deliveries and begun moonlighting for e-commerce companies and delivering freshly pressed juices or organic milk.
But now an acrimonious debate about further expansion is threatening to split the tight-knit group of nearly 5,000, which has prided itself on teamwork and community spirit since it was founded in 1890 during the days of British Raj.
“There are a few people who are trying to be a hurdle for modernization,” said Kiran Gavande, 33, a dabbawalla sorting lunchboxes outside Mumbai’s Churchgate railway station one recent day. “They want everything to stay the same. They’re only thinking of themselves.”
On work days, an estimated 5,000 dabbawallas fan out to homes around Mumbai to pick up hot lunches cooked by family members for workers who leave their homes in the early morning. At the railway station, the dabbawallas use a coding system to sort the boxes, separating them by area, loading them onto crates and hopping on crowded commuter trains to deliver them throughout the city.
The dabbawallas, only about 15 percent of whom have attended junior high school, according to the Harvard study, manage through a combination of strict rules, group support and an unfailing belief that “serving food is like serving God,” Stefan H. Thomke, the Harvard University professor of business administration who oversaw the study, wrote in 2012. Dabbawallas make about $180 to $225 (roughly Rs. 12,000 to Rs. 15,000) a month, and $60 to $75 (roughly Rs. 4,000 to Rs. 5,000) more if they moonlight by delivering for e-commerce companies, they say.
The recent controversy erupted when their 28-year-old spokesman and English-speaking consultant, Subodh B. Sangle, spoke at one of India’s premiere management schools, outlining a plan to start a new business that would link the dabbawallas with multinational companies to capitalize on their logistics acumen.
Many of the older dabbawallas rejected this idea, and some have even called for Sangle’s removal.
“Right now we’re going to stick with the same work,” said Raghunath D. Medge, the founder and president of the Mumbai Dabbawalla Association, noting that any decision on a new company would have to be voted on by the entire group.
Yet some of the other dabbawallas think they need to change in order to survive.
“The young dabbawallas are very happy with this,” countered Sangle, who has been working for them for seven years. “They think it’s going to raise their income and add more value to their lives.” He said they will launch the new business in the next three to four months.
Vikas Ramdas Bacche, 31, has been working as a dabbawalla for the last 10 years, like his father and grandfather before him.
One recent morning, weighed down with several canvas lunch bags, he made his way through a maze of auto-rickshaws to a train station in the northern part of the city, dodging harried commuters and an errant wedding band in red jackets. Disembarking a few stops later, he tied the lunchboxes on a rickety bike and made his way through the Santa Cruz neighborhood, stopping in the office of a chartered accountant, a ceramics shop and in the home of an 80-year-old woman whose married daughters send her meals each day.
Arvind Visaria, a clerk in a paint store, said he had been getting his lunch brought to him by a dabbawalla for 30 years. “It’s healthier this way,” he said. Every morning, his wife, Chandan, packs his lunch, often sauteed spinach or fenugreek greens and potato along with a cup of buttermilk.
Another customer at a high-tech investment firm, Nirav Shah, 38, a stock trader, says he still gets a lunchbox – called a “tiffin” – filled with vegetarian food from home each working day.
“I like my home food,” he said. “It’s definitely better.”
But on weekends he’s been experimenting with food delivery apps like iChef – which brings ready-to-cook meal kits for curries and stir-fries – or Swiggy, a takeout restaurant company.
Just after lunch, the rounds complete, he wheeled his bike back to the train station, the empty lunchboxes dangling. He was skipping his own mid-day meal to go home for the birthday party of his 2-year-old son, Manas. He had not yet taken a side in the expansion debate but said he felt sure that their core delivery business would endure.
“As long as people are working away from their family and they prefer home food, our service will be here,” he said.
© 2016 The Washington Post
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