Dabbawalas: Preserving Tradition in Modern India
Mumbai has kept its long-held tradition of eating home-cooked meals, even throughout the growth of commercial capitalism that causes many people to work away from home. The system that makes it possible is through dabbawalas, people who deliver lunchboxes from residence to workplace, often riding bicycles or railway systems. On any day, the dabbawalas may collectively transport 130,000 lunchboxes, totalling for 260,000 transactions in delivery and return.
The lunches are transported in tiffins, circular silver tins with multiple compartments, and are sorted through alpha numeric codes. After being collected, the tiffins are loaded onto a city train and handed off to a local dabbawala for the last part of the delivery. The average distance between home and work is 40km. All deliveries are made by 1pm, and after the meals are eaten, dabbawalas then pick up the empty tiffins to return to their respective home. The process has become streamlined as many families have moved towards living in large apartment buildings, though many buildings lack elevators.
The large majority of dabbawalas are semi-literate or illiterate, having only learned to read the coding system
by which the lunchboxes are sorted. These codes have become so ingrained in the dabbawalas that only an estimated one in six million lunchbox deliveries will not be completed accurately. Many come from small villages surrounding the bigger cities, such as the city of Pune or the Maharashtra state. Each dabbawala is assigned to a certain area, and collects 30-40 tiffins each. Dabbawalas earn a decent wage (by Indian standards) of Rs12,000, or $200, per month. The association is organized in a cooperative, and dabbawalas enjoy job security and general respect from the community.
Though the system began over 125 years ago, technological and infrastructural developments through the city of Mumbai have allowed the dabbawalas to deliver more lunchboxes per day, fitting for the growing number of working people who require such services. However, some technological changes, such as the Navi Mumbai Metro, become more of an obstacle than a help, as the cabins are too small to transport hundreds of tiffins at once.
In addition, cultural changes that allow or encourage women in families to become employed have decreased the number of wives or mothers who are at home to cook these meals. However, a solution that the dabbawalas are considering are for the dabbawalas’ wives to cook the meals. In addition, the increase in fast food and Western restaurants in the city have not significantly impacted the dabbawalas, as meals that are both convenient and healthy are preferred.
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Somask, Sumi, and Mandakini Gahlot. “This Indian Food Delivery Service Is the Envy of
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Author: Johnny Ramper