Friday - - Food Special -

to a grind­ing halt at lunchtime, say R Swami­nathan and Gee­tan­jali Min­has

A t 1pm sharp, Babu Rao Chorge, dressed in a white shirt, loose white trousers and sport­ing a white cloth cap, de­liv­ers Samyak Chat­topad­hyay’s home-cooked lunch to his of­fice in Church­gate, which is a 40-minute train jour­ney from his house in Vile Parle, in the western In­dian city of Mum­bai.

In the 15 years that he has been on the job, Babu Rao has never been late and not once has he mis­placed Samyak’s lunch. It’s not that the man works for a pizza chain that prom­ises to deliver food on time or else it’ll be free; or a multi­na­tional courier com­pany that de­pends on so­phis­ti­cated lo­gis­tics and com­puter tech­nol­ogy to en­sure it de­liv­ers pack­ages on sched­ule.

Babu Rao, 35, and barely lit­er­ate, is part of a group of 5,000 people, largely men, called dab­bawal­lahs (lunch box car­ri­ers, in Hindi) who, us­ing a cod­ing sys­tem that is a mix of coloured dots, letters and num­bers, deliver more than 200,000 lunch boxes by bi­cyle, hand­cart and train ev­ery day across the sprawl­ing city of Mum­bai. And they pick up the empty boxes and re­turn them to their homes in the evening with­out miss­ing a beat. “It’s truly amaz­ing that over the past 20 years I’ve been us­ing their ser­vices, they have never ever been late,’’ says Samyak. “I take it for granted that my tif­fin car­rier will be at my of­fice re­cep­tion at 1pm.”

Per­fectly syn­chro­nised and work­ing with as­sem­bly line pre­ci­sion, the en­tire oper­a­tion takes about nine hours from pick­ing up the lunch box from a client’s home and re­turn­ing the empty one in the evening.

Barely one box in 1.6 mil­lion goes astray. In stark con­trast, many air­lines ex­pect to lose about three bags for ev­ery 3,000 pas­sen­gers.

Now a syn­onym for con­sis­tency and punctuality, the dab­bawal­lahs plus their amaz­ing sys­tem of de­liv­er­ing on time, ev­ery time, come rain or shine and with­out us­ing mod­ern com­mu­ni­ca­tion de­vices, have as­tounded aca­demics, royalty and man­age­ment gu­rus alike. Keen to find out how just 5,000 people can deliver more than 2000,000 lunch boxes across the 603km2 city in barely a few hours, the pres­ti­gious and re­spected Har­vard Busi­ness School con­ducted a study on their modus operandi. Ti­tled The Dab­bawal­lah Sys­tem: on time de­liv­ery, ev­ery time, the study ended up be­com­ing part of its MBA cur­ricu­lum in 2010.

Co-au­thor of the case study, Ste­fan Thomke, said: “It’s very dif­fer­ent from the or­gan­i­sa­tions that our stu­dents study ev­ery day. It chal­lenges the as­sump­tions about the driv­ers of per­for­mance. It also in­spires. The dab­bawal­lah sys­tem works be­cause of its people, not be­cause of tech­nol­ogy.”

Courier gi­ant TNT also praised the dab­bawal­lahs’ re­liance on hu­man power for trans­port­ing such large vol­umes of a highly per­ish­able prod­uct like cooked food in such a short span of time. Gerry Pow­ers, who was man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of TNT Malaysia, said he was hum­bled and in­spired af­ter lis­ten­ing to a talk by Man­ish Tri­pathi, founder and Chair­man of the Dabb­wal­lah foun­da­tion, who de­liv­ered a Ted talk. “Tech­nol­ogy is a won­der­ful thing. But these men made me won­der if we over­com­pli­cate things,” said Gerry.

So who are these people and what is the dab­bawal­lah phe­nom­e­non all about? Leg­end has it that a banker, des­per­ate to eat hot home-cooked food for lunch, gave Ma­hadeo Havaji

Bachche, the first dab­bawal­lah, the re­spon­si­bil­ity of pick­ing up and drop­ing off fresh food from the banker’s home to his of­fice ev­ery day.

As the con­cept took root and more people showed in­ter­est, the de­mand for it soared. No sooner than it was con­ceived, Ma­hadeo saw a busi­ness op­por­tu­nity and got 100 of his com­mu­nity mem­bers to­gether to cre­ate the as­so­ci­a­tion in 1890, which to­day continues to ful­fil the need of those who are un­able to carry a freshly made lunch with them as they leave the house very early in the morn­ing and find eat­ing out ex­pen­sive and un­healthy.

To­day, a typ­i­cal dab­bawal­lah be­gins his day by mount­ing his bi­cy­cle at 8am and rid­ing it to the first house on his beat to pick up the lunch box from the client’s home. He then goes door-to-door pick­ing up more lunches and by 10.30am he has around 40 hang­ing from his bi­cy­cle, which he takes to his ap­pointed sub­ur­ban rail­way sta­tion where sev­eral of his fel­low dab­bawal­lahs with sim­i­lar loads have as­sem­bled.

All lunch­boxes are un­loaded from bi­cy­cles, ar­ranged on to a wooden rack and put into the lug­gage com­part­ments of sub­ur­ban trains bound for dif­fer­ent parts of the city. Af­ter reach­ing a cen­tral sta­tion the racks are fer­ried out for sort­ing and de­liv­ery as per the ar­eas.

The sys­tem works some­thing like this: each lo­cal­ity is iden­ti­fied by a code, neigh­bour­hood by a let­ter or a string of letters of the English al­pha­bet, des­ti­na­tion sub­ur­ban train sta­tion by a num­ber, the build­ing where the food is to be de­liv­ered, again by a let­ter or group of letters, and the floor in which the meal is to be eaten by a nu­mer­i­cal sym­bol.

The code, in Samyak and Babu Rao’s in­stance is “E-VLP-3-10-MT-12”. E de­notes the spe­cific lo­cal­ity from which the lunch box is be­ing picked up, Hanu­man Na­gar in this case; VLP is the area, Vile Parle; 3 is the des­ti­na­tion sub­ur­ban train sta­tion, Church­gate; 10 is the des­ti­na­tion area code, Colaba and Cuffe Pa­rade in this case; MT is the name of the build­ing in which the food is to be de­liv­ered, which is Maker Tower; and 12 is the floor in which the hun­gry Mum­baikar, Samyak, works.

Ad­di­tion­ally, the han­dles of the lunch boxes are colour coded to dif­fer­en­ti­ate be­tween people who might work in the same of­fice and are from the same lo­cal­ity.

The dab­bawalahs’ work – which costs Rs400 (Dh23) per client per month – has come in for praise from sev­eral busi­ness lead­ers in­clud­ing Vir­gin Air­lines’ Richard Bran­son who ac­com­pa­nied the men on a trip to see for him­self how they work. It is said that a pic­ture of Bran­son with the dabb­wal­lahs hangs in his of­fice in Lon­don – to in­spire and mo­ti­vate his staff about the im­por­tance of punctuality and work ethic.

The UK’s Prince Charles is an­other ad­mirer of the lunch box car­ri­ers and was said to have been amazed by their punctuality and dis­ci­pline when he heard about them dur­ing his visit to In­dia in 2003. He showed a keen in­ter­est in meet­ing them at an of­fi­cial event. How­ever, the dab­bawal­lahs re­port­edly told the Prince that they didn’t have the time to spare as they couldn’t be late for their de­liv­er­ies. In­stead they sug­gested that he meet them on the pave­ment out­side Church­gate sta­tion be­tween 11.20am and 11.40am, where many of them gather ev­ery day to sort out all the lunch­boxes that are de­liv­ered in the neigh­bour­hood. And the Prince did. In fact, he in­vited them to his wed­ding to Camilla Parker Bowles, Duchess of Corn­wall!

The of­fi­cials of the Dab­bawal­lah As­so­ci­a­tion are much in de­mand as speak­ers at sev­eral top man­age­ment con­fer­ences. Arvind Talekar, a se­nior mem­ber of the as­so­ci­a­tion, was in Dubai in June last year where he spoke at the two-day GCC Govern­ment Or­gan­i­sa­tions Third and Fourth Line Lead­ers De­vel­op­ment Con­fer­ence. He as­tounded par­tic­i­pants with the achieve­ments of his team and fielded a va­ri­ety of ques­tions on how they re­main punc­tual even in the most try­ing cir­cum­stances such as

strikes and shut­downs. Ali Al Ka­mali, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of Datama­trix, who or­gan­ised the con­fer­ence, was full of praise for the dab­bawal­lahs.

Af­ter lis­ten­ing to the talk de­liv­ered by Arvind, Ka­mali said, “Their work is a won­der­ful story of hard work, grit and pas­sion. As busi­ness lead­ers it teaches us a lot of lessons in time man­age­ment, hard work etc. It also shows you don’t nec­es­sar­ily have to go to big busi­ness schools to learn busi­ness; you can learn from any­where if you want to learn.”

Not once in their his­tory have the dab­bawal­lahs ever gone on strike. Also, there has never been a case filed against them in a court of law. So per­fectly run is the or­gan­i­sa­tion that it was given an ISO 2000 cer­ti­fi­ca­tion for qual­ity stan­dards – with­out even ap­ply­ing for it.

Most of the de­liv­ery men have stud­ied only un­til Grade 8, earn about Rs7,000 a month (Dh415) and have never been given for­mal train­ing in cus­tomer care. Fresh re­cruits are taken on a six-month pro­ba­tion, dur­ing which they are taught the in­tri­ca­cies of the sys­tem be­fore be­ing given an area in which to op­er­ate.

“In my two decades of as­so­ci­a­tion with the dab­bawal­lahs, they have never made a mis­take,” says Samyak, 45. “You can even change your name but they will still deliver your tif­fin box at your of­fice us­ing their code.”

Samyak knows what he’s talk­ing about. In his Ex­ec­u­tive De­vel­op­ment Pro­gramme (EDP) for se­nior pro­fes­sion­als con­ducted by the In­dian In­sti­tute of Man­age­ment, Ahmed­abad, he chose to fo­cus on how Mum­bai’s dab­bawal­lahs en­sured that each and ev­ery mem­ber of the group not only knew the cod­ing sys­tem well enough but was up­dated on a reg­u­lar ba­sis, with the con­struc­tion boom adding to their chal­lenges.

As Dr Pawan Agar­wal, who has done a PhD in lo­gis­tics and sup­ply chain man­age­ment of dab­bawal­lahs, says, “The se­cret of their suc­cess lies in their sense of com­mit­ment to­wards their work. So, for in­stance, when Mum­bai is lashed by heavy mon­soon for months and life in gen­eral is to­tally dis­rupted, the dab­bawal­lahs, with­out be­ing told by their su­pe­ri­ors, start the day much early than usual so that they reach their des­ti­na­tion on time.

“There have been cases when people have sent money and valu­ables to their fam­ily through lunch boxes as they were scared of car­ry­ing it on them while trav­el­ling in crowded lo­cal trains. There has not been a sin­gle in­stance where a cus­tomer’s lunch box has been

‘Their work is a won­der­ful story of hard work, grit and pas­sion. It teaches us a lot’

pil­fered,” he adds. It is this im­plicit faith in the group that makes the or­gan­i­sa­tion big­ger than the recog­ni­tion that they have earned over the years for their ef­fi­ciency.

Ashok Mhatarba Dum­bre, pres­i­dent of the Dab­bawal­lah Foun­da­tion, ad­mits the dab­bawal­lah sys­tem is be­set with chal­lenges from fast-food chains, take­aways and quick-ser­vice restaurants. “The younger gen­er­a­tion seems to like fast-food de­liv­er­ies,” he says. “But we have also seen that once they set­tle down into a job and look for a more per­ma­nent base they start miss­ing sim­ple home-cooked food and turn to a dab­bawal­lah ser­vice.”

High cus­tomer sat­is­fac­tion means dab­bawal­lahs get re­ferred new busi­ness. “Only sat­is­fied cus­tomers rec­om­mend other clients, and that helps us a lot,” Ashok says.

Samyak and his wife Bar­nali have rec­om­mended the ser­vice to at least 30 people in the past few years

Samyak adds, “I con­tinue to be amazed by their con­sis­tent high stan­dards in spite of the ex­act­ing sched­ule they are ex­pected to fol­low. And con­sid­er­ing the money they earn is not mo­ti­va­tion enough to con­tinue in the pro­fes­sion, I have not come across a dab­bawal­lah who slacks or needs lessons in self-mo­ti­va­tion.”

dab­bawal­lah’s day be­gins at 8am. Right, lunch boxes ready for de­liv­ery

Lunch boxes are sorted at the rail­way sta­tions

Bi­cy­cles, trains and hand­carts are used to deliver the lunches

The boxes are picked up and dropped back off, in a day’s work

Ucil iunt mol­lorem Richard ex­pe­rum Bran­son si nia se mo joined inti uta­tior them on re a magni tour to learn more

FOOD SPE­CIAL The uni­form sets the dab­bawal­lahs apart from other work­ers

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