The Dabbawalas of Mumbai

Jun 06, 13 The Dabbawalas of Mumbai

By now, I’m sure most of you would have heard of the dabbawalas of Mumbai. They refer to a large group of delivery men based in the city of Mumbai (India), who deliver home-cooked meals packed in tiffin carriers to hundreds of thousands of office workers in the city daily. Translated literally, the word dabba means container (usually in the form of a tiffin carrier), while wala refers to adeliveryman. As such, the term dabbawalas essentially means ‘tiffin carrier deliverymen’.

For those who have not heard of the dabbawalas, the next question that comes to mind would be: What is so special about a group of men who deliver tiffin carriers in Mumbai? According to Dr. Pawan Agrawal, CEO of the Mumbai Dabbawalas, the case in point here is that these people are no mere deliverymen, but a group of unsung heroes whose work ethics and operational model have been adopted as a benchmark for the rest of the world to follow, especially those who are involved in supply chain management.

The humble set-up of the Mumbai dabbawalas’ network, which was established in the late 19th century, belies its mind-boggling achievements in providing reliable service to their customers and keeping a near-perfect delivery record. Consider these amazing statistics, which help to quantify their track record:

No. of employees (average): 5,000
Literacy rate: 8th grade schooling
No. of tiffins/day (average): 200,000
No. of transactions/day: 400,000
Delivery radius: 60—70km
Error rate: 1 in 16 million transactions
Average service cost: Rs 350—400/month (»RM20—22/month)
Average earnings: Rs 6,000—7,000/month (»RM330—380/month)
Bonus: 1-month Diwali bonus/year
Number of strikes since 1890: Nil


These statistics reflect the slim base of support resources for an efficient, economical, and seamless tiffin delivery business, which is not driven by the promises of high pay or perks. The dabbawalas go to work daily with a core goal in mind, i.e. the safe and punctual delivery of food-filled tiffin sets to the workplace, and then the return of the tiffin sets to the respective homes at the end of the day.

The next question then beckons: What is the secret behind the success of the humble dabbawalas of Mumbai? What is it about their system and network that has made reputable corporations and even famous individuals stand up and take notice?

During a seminar which was held at the PSDC in April 2013, Dr. Pawan shared the interesting work philosophies of the dabbawalas, encapsulated in these principles:

  • Work is an act of worship.
  • The customer is God.
  • There is NO alternative to sheer hard work.
  • Work must be guided by human values.

The dabbawalas are also bound by these unwritten rules of conduct, which they observe faithfully:

  • Strictly no smoking and alcohol consumption during work hours.
  • The signature white dabbawala cap must be worn at all times during work hours.
  • Dabbawalas must carry proper identification on them at all times.
  • Dabbawalas are forbidden to take any work leave without prior notice.

Such ethics and guidelines may seem radical or draconian by the standards of our employee-centric culture today, but they reflect deeply on how the dabbawala views and approaches his work, however humble his profession may be. They illustrate the importance of work for a dabbawala as a sacred pursuit or privilege, beyond just a means by which he can earn an honest living. This is in stark contrast to the employment market today, where work values tend to veer towards higher remuneration and generous fringe benefits as employees chase and demand better terms of employment and privileges, often side-lining questions of productivity, contribution, and on-the-job performance.

The basic dabbawala supply chain is in fact a simply conceived ‘secret’: each node has a ‘specialist’ worker assigned to it, and the nodes join up in an efficiently coordinated and seamless system which, on average, sees tiffin sets ‘change hands’ about 6 or more times from pick-up to the final delivery point. In this chain, there is no state-of-the art technology or revolutionary strategy being employed; only sheer human dedication, discipline, and commitment to duty, values, and work rules. In addition, all tiffin carriers are also colour- and number-coded in a specific format to indicate the codes for railway station, street, and building.

Below are other interesting facts on the dabbawalas’ organisational structure:

  • There is no employer-employee relationship between dabbawalas.
  • All dabbawalas must carry out delivery duties, including the President himself.
  • The oldest dabbawala in a specific group/area shall be appointed as the mukadam (leader). The mukadam is allowed to carry less dabbas (tiffins) compared to the rest of the group.

While it is still unknown how long the dabbawalas would be able to sustain their operations in the near future, this profession continues to thrive for now, due to the vibrant demand from the working class for home-cooked meals to be delivered to their offices on a daily basis. However, it is widely anticipated that the falling demand for, or decreasing capacity to provide home-cooked food as India’s mega-cities continue to modernise could trigger a slow decline in the traditional dabbawala services. While this tradition is still alive however, the dabbawalas’ model shall continue to serve as the epitome of supply chain, marvelled and benchmarked by companies worldwide.


Write-up contributed by: Richard Ho


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