Mumbai, India is home to the world’s most ingenious food distribution system. For over one hundred years homemade meals have been delivered to workers toiling away in the city at lunch time every day.
There are five thousand dabbawalas or box carriers in Mumbai who begin work first thing in a morning at around 8am by collecting lunch boxes or tiffins from the workers homes. The tiffins are taken to the local railway station where they are crated and sent by train to be sorted in downtown Mumbai. About 11.30am the dabbawalas, sometimes called tiffinwalas, collect up to forty each for delivery around the city. Mostly made up of men, as the packs can weigh up to 180 pounds, the dabbawalas ensure the prompt delivery of around 200,000 tiffin meals each day. The bare footed delivery men, who are scarcely literate, but boast a success rate of just one error per 10,000 deliveries. They ensure an efficient and punctual service from Monday to Saturday even in the adverse conditions of a monsoon.
The delivery system doesn’t rely on any high technology; instead the handles of the tiffin are color coded denoting areas and a series of symbols, lines, crosses and dots then pinpoints the exact address of the recipient to the dabbawalas. When on duty they wear white Gandhi caps whilst they carry the tiffins on bicycles, in hand carts and even on their heads in large lunch pails. After lunch the tiffins are collected from the workers and the service then goes into reverse with the dabbawalas delivering the tiffins back to the workers homes by around 6.00pm.
Tiffin comes from an Old English word meaning midday snack and is typically made up of four metal containers which hold either a dhal or a curry, rice, naan bread and either a vegetable accompaniment or a dessert. In days before text messaging, email and telephone, messages would often be placed inside the tiffin to be sent between the worker and his home.
This service is available for just 250 -300 rupees per month which equates to a bargain price of approximately $6.00. The dabbawalas themselves can earn between $40-80.00 per month depending on how many deliveries have been made. Nowadays, they have their own website mydabbawala.com and workers can text what time they would like their home cooked food to be delivered at. But this environmentally friendly service has barely changed since the 19th century when it originated. India was under British rule at this time and many British people did not like the local Indian cuisine so the service was set up to bring in freshly cooked food from their homes. Today, however, the service would never have got off the ground as the British have now voted Chicken Tikka Masala as the nations favorite dish.
Photos courtesy of flickr - babasteve, JamesMorton, amsilla learner and StephenRees.