What’s on the plate for the dabbawalas of Mumbai?

Ashish Tiwari

Photo courtesy – ZACH GLASSMAN

Who would have thought that work from home could have been a bad thing? Well, it is for the Dabbawalas of Mumbai. Out of the 5000 dabbawalas, who used to make 200,000 deliveries in a day, only 200-250 are still working, said Ulhas Muke.

The men in white and a Gandhi cap used to pedal up and down the busy roads of Mumbai to deliver home-cooked food to corporate offices, factories, and government offices, and then on to the local train to bring back the empty tiffin home to their clients.

Since the last two years and a temporary halt on the lifeline (the local trains) of Mumbai, many dabbawalas (lunch box carriers) have chosen a different profession, and some have traveled back to their villages.

Prakash Medge (45), a dabbawala, wonders what an illiterate man could do in this everchanging city of Mumbai. “Other than labor at construction sites, or guard duty, or any petty work that could fetch us some money,” said Medge.

“Last year, we started to deliver at those jumbo covid centers and hospitals nearby from the community mess,” said Prakash.
Medge, when not delivering food – which is quite often nowadays – labors at a construction site. When asked, over a video call, if he was considering leaving this dabbawala profession, he said he cannot even think of a situation where he sees himself working in some other profession. Further rolling his eyes out his windows and with a humorless smile, Prakash said, “Just think that you’ve earned nothing for the past two years, and work with this mindset. The household will be taken care of anyway.”

Dr. Pawan Agarwal did his Ph.D. on the dabbawalas and their supply chain management, when asked, why such dire condition of the dabbawalas, “First is this work from home culture. Last year, during Diwali, the Maharashtra Government allowed the dabbawalas to resume their work. But whom should they deliver to? And even if tomorrow the government allows them to function, the second challenge would be the local trains,” said Agrawal.

Dr. Agarwal was also briefly a spokesperson of the dabbawala association. In the last couple of decades, he has monitored the dabbawalas closely and is saddened by the condition of these people during the pandemic.

With the rise of tech-driven food delivery platforms (Zomato and Swiggy, for example), many dabbawalas fear that their work might be taken over. Vaishali Bhardwaj, a market strategist who had worked with the dabbawalas, believes that the dabbawala’s refusal to adapt can be a challenge in the face of the giants like Zomato and Swiggy. “These are very innocent people and not very tech-savvy, and because of this they have been fooled many times,” said Vaishali.

Dr. Agrawal feels otherwise when it comes to Zomato or Swiggy overtaking the dabbawalas. “From 130 years, the USP of these dabbawalas is the in-time delivery, and secondly your delivery will be bereft of any mistakes or mismanagement. So these big companies can never match the standards of the dabbawalas. And they are reluctant to change, not refusing to change,” said Dr. Agrawal.

Even Ulhas Muke, president of Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust, feels the same. He said that both (dabbawalas and Zomato) have different things to deliver and they are limited to an area of 3km – 5km. While the Dabbawalas cover around 70km (Virar to Churchgate) stretch.

Muke used to work as a dabbawala before the second set of lockdowns. Now he focuses on charitable trust. “After the first lockdown, we began work with around 300 dabbawalas. Worked for 2-3 months, but then again, the lockdown was implemented, so we had to stop,” said Muke. “Right now, around 250 of them are working, on no fixed income. 5,000 – 7,000 is what they earn,” added Muke.

A couple of months back, Mumbai-based Impresario Handmade Restaurants, headed by Riyaaz Amlani, launched a collaboration with the dabbawalas. They recruited some dabbawalas to deliver orders from their restaurants (SOCIAL, Smoke House Deli, etc.) in the Bandra Kurla Complex and Lower Parel area. “Riyaaz Amlani helped us. We started with 5 people, and now close to 30 dabbawalas are working with his restaurants,” said Muke.

But, Raghunath Medge, former president of Nutan Mumbai, said that many duplicate dabbawalas have entered the market. “I’m not aware of such dabbawalas,” said Raghunath Medge.