Bombay Dabbawallas: The Sustainable Gastronomic Lifeline of Mumbai

In one of the most densely populated cities in the world, is a food delivery service that puts all big-wigs to shame. Bombay (now known as Mumbai) Dabbawalla service includes an army of about five thousand men, dressed in an all-white attire that includes a kurta, pyjama and a topi or Gandhi cap, delivering daily dabbas or tiffin boxes to lakhs of people around the city. A dabba is essentially a steel lunch box, that is widely used in India to carry meals to work or school. The dabbas are usually three-tiered, filled with a variety of dishes to be consumed for a meal, and a dabbawalla is the ‘man who delivers the lunch box.’

Mumbai Dabbawalas at work. Image source.

The service itself came into being in the late 19th century, when a Bombay based banker, Mahadeo Havaji Bachche, decided on having homemade food delivered to his office. This idea gained immense popularity among his colleagues, given the lack of fast-food culture during the time and an increase in the number of hungry workers. Recognising a keen business opportunity, Bachche launched the first dabbawalla service in the year 1890, with around a hundred men, delivering his first Dabba to a British man on request.

In the current day, the culture of the dabbawalla is essential to cater to the fast-paced lifestyle the city has to offer. Professionals in the city usually work for eight hours a day, five days a week. Their day begins at 7 am and ends at 7 pm, depriving them of homemade, nutritious meals. Travel in the city is crowded and inconvenient, deterring many from carrying their tiffin bags on trains or local transport. The dabbawallas act as saviours, in this case, delivering fresh homemade food to office-goers. A dabbawalla typically begins their day fairly early, with their first round of deliveries commencing around 8 am. Each dabbawalla heads to the nearest station to identify, organise and collect the dabbas for the day.  

A dabbawalla usually collects and delivers around forty tiffin boxes from a certain neighbourhood, post which the dabbas are packed into crates and assigned to individual dabbawallas. The tiffins are sorted into piles, depending on location and use a colour coded, alphanumeric system to mark the pick-up location, the train station the dabba must head to, the destination train station where it should be unloaded and the exact delivery location. With a low literacy rate among the dabbawallas, this system makes sure efficiency is at its best and slipups are close to none. Learning the intricacies of this complex system can take up to three months, but when learnt, this method proves effective. 

Once marked, the tiffin crates are loaded on trains or bicycles, and are sent to their destinations. If the dabbas are being transported on a train, a team of local dabbawallas often lie in wait to receive these lunch boxes and deliver them to their final destination. When the deliveries are done, the dabbawallas relish their lunch before going through the entire process once again, to make sure the dabbas get back to where they came from. This is a cycle that continues on loop, every single day of the year, delivering over 2 lakh dabbas daily. The complex system used to transport lakhs of tiffin boxes regularly, is not only extremely efficient, seeing one mistake in millions but is also extremely sustainable.

Dabbawalas loading the tiffins onto the Mumbai local train. Image source.

The daily operations of the dabbawallas have an undeniably low impact on the environment. Given that reusable stainless steel tiffin boxes are used and returned, the use of throw away plastic containers is minimised, lowering the usage of millions of tonnes of plastic waste. Their transport use is clean and efficient, with local trains, bicycles and other forms of public transport being used to deliver lakhs of dabbas. This brings their carbon footprint to nearly zero. 

Their use of public transportation, leads them to have zero impact on the environment, but they also help millions of people reduce their carbon footprint. They help provide space for more people to travel in trains, due to the lack of extra tiffin bags that would otherwise leave less space for people in a crowded Mumbai local. The dabbawallas also have a paperless system for deliveries, using a coded system and staying away from unnecessary paper or plastic packaging. The dabbas are transported in reusable bags, further reducing the use of plastic bags. The daily delivery of homemade food also promotes healthy eating, reducing the consumption of packaged and processed foods. 

Today, a humble dabba delivery service started over a century ago with not more than a hundred personnel has expanded into one of the most efficient and ecologically sustainable food services in the world. The resilience and strength of the Mumbai dabbawalla is reflected in their work ethic and beliefs of wholeheartedly serving other people. Come rain or shine, the dabbawallas of Mumbai never miss a delivery and truly symbolise the unbeatable spirit of Mumbai city.     


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