Cook, and 
they’ll deliver


Cook, and 
they’ll deliver

Battling through the mind-boggling commuting conditions of Mumbai city, one group of peddle-pushers has garnered worldwide fame, all while keeping the bellies of the capital’s workers filled with hearty home-cooked food.


Kelly Clarke

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Published: Sat 3 Aug 2013, 6:10 PM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 11:18 AM

As the clock strikes lunch in the densely populated city, the Mumbai Dabbawalas — a team of food deliverymen who transport food from home to office — operate with near-clockwork precision, and the driving force behind their success? Simplicity.

Armed with around forty tiffin boxes— a three-tiered metal food carrier — a bicycle, and their trademark white cap (Nehru), each of the 5,000-strong dabbawalas walk, cycle and clamber their way through the throngs of train commuters during rush hour, through a delivery system without equal anywhere else in the world.

Untouched by twenty-first century technology, despite completing around 400,000 transactions everyday (delivery and return), the association’s secretary, Arvind Talekar says forget gigabytes and hard drives.

“Technology is not a substitute for errors. We run on honesty, sincerity, hard work and faith. Technology has become a habit for too many, but not us.”

Born in 1968, Arvind Talekar attended Robert Money Technical High School in Mumbai, and like his grandfather and father before him, he picked up his first tiffin box at 18.

With his grandfather donning the white cap in 1920 and his father in 1965, Talekar vividly remembers his first delivery.

“My father told me to bring three of his boxes to the customers and I had to reach the place at a particular time. It was a very tough task and I was so conscious of the clock.”

Now, more than three decades later, Talekar is one of the key drivers behind the Mumbai Dabbawalas along with president of the association and third generation dabbawala, Raghunath Medge.

Medge was born in 1955 and attended Parle College in Vile Parle, Mumbai. Following in the footsteps of his father and uncle, his first stint as a dabbawala was back in 1972.

Intent on perfecting the ins and outs of the trade, Medge often bunked classes during the April holiday season so he could travel to the houses and offices of customers to familiarise himself with the destination routes. “The customer is our king and it’s about keeping them happy. You can afford to miss class, but you can’t afford to miss delivery,” Medge jokes.

Working by a system virtually unchanged since its inception in 1890, the 123-year service is a tradition that lives on in India, despite the worldwide advances in transportation and telecommunications infrastructure.

With the Indian nation renowned for its ‘lunchbox culture’, food is noted as an integral ingredient of the community and Talekar believes people do not get love or affection from food “unless it is prepared by you, your wife, or your mother.”

With an average literacy rate of eighth grade, the Mumbai Dabbawalas bring all classes together with the uneducated feeding the educated.

Often working in their bare feet, the sheer dedication from each and every dabbawala has seen them battle through the harshest weather conditions, be it monsoon floods or soaring heat, just to make sure lunch is served on time, every time.

The gruelling day-to-day operation begins at 11am when the race is on to feed over 200,000 workers within a 3-hour turnaround period. With a ‘work is worship’ attitude, the first delivery boy picks up the freshly prepared tiffin meals from the customer’s house and so begins its journey to the office.

Slung over their shoulders or perfectly balanced in wooden crates on their heads, the dabbawalas are subjected to an intense daily workout with a weight load of 55kg-65kg per crate. From journey start to end, each box is exchanged between the hands of around six men, and despite thousands of individual tiffins being piled into one train carriage at a time, the dabbawalas’ error rate is one in 16 million — a statistic which has amassed them a Six Sigma status from the Harvard Business School.

The deliverymens honourable work ethic has gained them a number of high profile supporters from around the world and Talekar and Medge say they were just their “own little service”, before a visit in 2003 catapulted them to fame.

“When Prince Charles came to Mumbai to see us, we were thrust into the spotlight”, says Talekar, adding that the exposure gained the respect of many locals in Mumbai.

“Before, people would recognise us but think nothing of us. We were just another man, crowding the streets, but now it’s different. They see how we work and they appreciate us.”


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