Sunday, January 31, 2010

The dabbawala and other Mumbai stories

- By Deepa Krishnan

"Why haven't you written about the dabbawalas?", someone asked me recently. "They're such a Mumbai icon!"

Well, if you really want to know, I haven't written about the dabbawalas simply because they've become such a well-worn cliche. I am so irritated by condescending articles that gush "Oh, they're uneducated but they're still a six sigma operation!!".

As if only people with university degrees can run anything of high quality!

I'm quite certain the istriwala who has been coming to our house every week for the last 20 years runs a six sigma operation. He rarely, very rarely, makes mistakes. The guy who delivers our groceries (he comes home every alternate day and takes orders) rarely makes mistakes either. The newspaper delivery is never wrong, nor the milk delivery. The flower-woman delivers the right fresh flowers for daily prayer (different types of flowers for different houses, different lengths, and special flowers for special days). There's a fruit seller who brings bananas to my parents home every other day, and a vegetable seller who brings palak.

Istriwala at work, 7:00 a.m., near Indian Gymkhana, Matunga

Paperwala doing his rounds, near SIES School

All of these services are run by people with no literacy; they each service large numbers of people, and they all work quite well, thank you. Why? Maybe it's history. We have had, for many hundreds of years, tradesmen and artisans and tailors and goldsmiths, all providing custom services to not just nawabs and maharajahs, but also to a large section of middle and upper middle class consumers.

People were born into these specific trades - if your father was a goldsmith, so would you be. Fathers passed on to their sons, not only the necessary skills of the trade, but also their clientele. "Yeh hamara ladka hai", said our istriwala to me some months ago. This is my son. It was a business introduction, a way of ensuring the son's face was imprinted on me, so that when he passed on, the son could take over the business.

The sons of tradesmen all start by following their parents to shops or on their rounds, familiarising themselves not only with the trade, but also the customers. Our family goldsmith, for instance, knows three generations of our family, and we know three generations of theirs. As each generation passes on, the younger ones continue the relationship, offering personalised and trusted services.

But it's not just artisans and tradesmen - you can see custom-services even in the daily bazaars. Come pickling season, shopkeepers set up custom mango slicing operations. "Don't cut it so fine, bhaiyya", you can say to them. "I'd like it more chunky." Buying a pineapple? They'll slice it into nice thin circles so you don't have to bother. How about a pomegranate? Ah, no problem, they'll peel it for you and give you bright red kernels in small pouches. Fresh corn? They'll cut the kernels from the cob and custom-pack it for you. If you're a regular customer, they'll remember what you like and how you like it.

Mango seller, Bhuleshwar. You can taste before buying; and have it cut to your specifications.

Pomegranates at Matunga Market, free peeling service

As you can see, we are quite obviously, a people who understand personalised and high quality service extremely well. In fact, I think Indian consumers are probably the most demanding in the world. We want - no, we insist - on superior service, tailored to our needs, at little or no cost. This of course, is a daunting prospect for anyone supplying anything to the Indian market. But sellers who can understand this mindset and who can tailor their products and services to it, are the ones who will succeed and thrive.

The dabbawallas have, in fact, done exactly that. They provide a service that is designed around their customer's needs, at a price that makes sense. This doesn't make the dabbawalas any less iconic or interesting - but it does set them into a larger context, the context of a city that offers other similar services at really low costs.

Here are the simple economics of the dabbawala story:

Number of dabbawalas: 5,000

Number of dabbas they deliver every day: 200,000

Charges per month: Rs 250-300 per dabba

What you get for 10 rupees a day: Two-way delivery of food (in the morning, hot food is transported from home to office, and in the afternoon the empty dabba is brought back)

Does it make sense?: Yes it does. A thali meal at a restaurant costs at least Rs 35; and the nicer ones cost Rs 100 - Rs 200. So even with the dabbawala's delivery charges, you end up spending much, much less every month if you bring food from home. And you don't get upset tummies. And all your little food taboos are intact - you can eat garlic-free meals, if your religion forbids garlic. Or sugar-free meals, if you're diabetic. Unlike a courier service, you get the same dabbawala every day, a face-to-face personalised service integrated into your daily routine. Before the era of cell phones, dabbawalas passed on messages as well ("Come home early, your aunt from Valsad is here!"). Even today, because it is a familiar trusted daily service, the dabbawala will sometimes deliver cell phones or pens or things that someone has forgotten at home.

And thus the dabbawala's proposition works; it is priced right for the market, but more importantly, it satisfies the customer's requirement for a customised, personalised meal that meets personal, medical, religious and social requirements. It therefore delivers exactly the kind of value that Indian customers want and appreciate. If there is a magic formula for succeeding in the Indian market, surely this is it.


Sunil said...

very interesting read....:)
insightful and very well documented....

iamyuva said...

always wondered why such success for large scale coordination, supply chain/delivery model cant be repeated in different cities or different services..!

iamyuva said...

always wondered why such success for large scale coordination, supply chain/delivery model cant be repeated in different cities or different services..!

Super Babe said...

I, as usual, enjoyed reading this post. But being non-Indian, the concept of dabba wasn't clear to me. The food is at made at your own home and, fresh and hot, brought directly to you (at work or wherever you are?)? Is that how it works?

I really enjoy your blog and hope that next time we go to India we can spend some time in Mumbai! :)

Haddock said...

Oh no, you beat me to it.
I was all ready with the photographs of the dabawalla and statistics and what not.
Any way what you said about the istriwalla and paper walla are true.
Have a look about my latest (Mehendi)

Preeti said...

left my mind thinking, always wondered how simple networking with focus and consistence made success possible. this article is a true insight to it.

Santosh Pandit said...

Six Sigma? No thanks!. Analogy - A wheelchair is required only if your legs are broken. Six Sigma is required when your organisation is messy....

Shoba Narayan said...

Lovely piece

A Mitr said...

Good piece Deepa. Six Sigma and all these quality initiatives try to package common sense, focus and a sense of service .. usually to groups who are expected to have them in oodles, but in reality are clueless. Whereas the people you have recognised in yr article have a natural flair for these qualities and it comes from their heart and mind.

Keep up the great work :-)

Aurita said...

Very well written!

Sri said...

Hi Deepa,
Revathy had shared your blog on Facebook. I read a few of your posts. Enjoyed it very much, being from Bombay myself, now in New York. You have a very good flair for writing. Now I have to go check out your mom and your daughter's posts.

The Muser said...

Hi Deepa,

Have been reading the 3 generation post for sometime now...quite an interesting article this :)

salman said...

Well, I hit mumbai 4 months back as my company wanted me to join their mumbai office and since then I have fell in love with this place. I just don't want to leave :)

I still haven't understood why media says that mumbai locals hate north indians...nobody till now hates me..I ask anybody anything while traveling in locals and I get detailed answers. They make sure I reach where I am trying to..and they talk in hindi all the time with that I don't feel till now has been soo smooth.

I understand that if we (north indians) come to mumbai and do misdeeds then no one will love us...if we dont then we are jus another Indian for locals and they love us a lot...I love this city and respect its locals a lot..simply love em :)

I have been a blogger since last 4 years but never wrote personal articles. More into tech blogging and freelancing.

I started my own blog on mumbai and recently wrote an article of my experience while my friends dragged me to the red light area :)

if you get time then please do take few minutes out and tell me how was the writing..I have been tech blogger for 4 years but never wrote personal experience articles..want to understand how well am I heading..

by the you can add my name in the list of your regular visitors :)

you did the work on dabba walas...I am gonna do a research on pao thing in mumbai...they sell everything...pao bhaji...pao samosa..wot not :P

salman said...

forgot to ask in my last comment..

in this dabba concept is the food cooked in home and delivered by these people or they cook for us too?

Deepa Krishnan said...

If you don't have anyone to cook at home, then they also have arrangements with various small caterers (including some women) who provide home-style meals.

Tamanna Mishra said...

That's so true Deepa! Dabbawaalas are not the only 6 sigma run operation in Bombay. The entire city runs on that principle. For the small town person I am, Bombay was awe inspiring. Not just the dabbawalaas but the innovation that comes only because of the intense need to survive, the amount of practicality the city displays is brilliant!

And Bombay is THE example of the fact that edication doesn't necessarily make a man.

I love the concept of your blog too. Read the post about you getting featured in Harmony. Keep up the good work. The blog makes me feel a little bit more connected to Bombay now that I don't live there anymore. Sending much love and good wishes your way - all 3 of you :)

Shine on,

srinivas said...

Deepa, As you said, the Dabbawalas are too well known. I was wondering how the newspaper guys remember and deliver the combination of Newspapers the people in the locality subscribe to.

Anonymous said...

Very well written and insightful post. Enjoyed reading it.

Shri said...

An interesting insight indeed.. I liked the bit where you explain the passing of skills and professions to the next generation.. keep up the good work...

Shobna said...

You brought back a rush of memories. Come 8:30 a.m. the lift door would bang open and our doorbell would ring, almost simultaneously. The dabba would be handed out with the inevitable, 'Coffee laane bolna' to the guy's back. And the message would be passed.

The dabbawala handles about five dabbas in a hand before placing them in long crates, so we learnt the art of packing the necessary sambar and buttermilk so that they wouldn't reach the office in an untidy mess.

Apart from the professions mentioned, there is also the bus conductor - how do they keep track of who has bought tickets? When I was a kid, I decided to travel ticketless so that I could save the money for pani-puri. Needless to say, the conductor saw through the game.

Anita and Amit Vachharajani said...

I have had the oppurtunity to observe Dabbawallahs over many years on film assignements and this is what I feel. Six Sigma, Prince Charles and all that jazz on one side...but the real picture is that your average Dabbawallah is a exploited bloke. Most of the money they earn is taken away by their mukadams/ union presidents and because of the very strong community ties they are stuck doing it for years without any hope in sight. The top bosses of the association live in nice apartments and own cars (I will not name names...) and the all the others - if they are senior and have saved a little bit of money live in far out slums in Dahisar and Virar while the younger lot just sleeps in the offices of the union. There is a lot of resentment in the ranks and a union meeting is always about the young lot not getting paid enough. The heavy trays they carry cause them severe neck and back problems and the union does nothing for them....I have been to one Dabbawallah's house in Dahisar - he has been living in that 5x10 ft kholi for 25 years and he can't even keep his son with him in the house as there is no space. The son now lives in the village studies.
I am always amazed that no one ever scratches beneath the surface and talks only about their efficiency and low cost. Most of the foreign film crews I work with always have the same question to ask - all this hard work just so that the male of the house gets to eat hot home cooked food! Why can't he move his butt and get a burger!

Deepa Krishnan said...

Amit, every service in India is underpaid, whether it is the dhobi or the paperwala or the dabbawala or the housemaid or watchman. This holds true even higher up the ladder - take our creative industry for example, where a cameraperson is paid a pittance. Or take my own tourism industry, where knowledgeable guides are paid low rates but expected to hold forth with enthusisam on architecture and history. Or take teaching, or law. Or nursing, or really a myriad of services, all of which come cheap only because there is such a huge population that people are willing to do jobs at low prices.

gyandotcom said...

I must say You Guys are really amazing.
keep doing great work.

Sangita said...

Chanced upon your blog the other day and really enjoyed your insightful posts. The dabbawala operation has been cited ad nauseum but I suppose it's still living down its Harvard case study fame. Thanks for drawing attention to all the other well-run businesses out there.

TEJA said...


Mozammil said...

Really, Its amazing work of Team Effort,,,,

Anil Kumar said...

While most of Dabbas originate from homes, Tiffin suppliers also utilise Dabbawalas to deliver meals to their customers. Over 200 Tiffin suppliers are listed on

Beaver said...

Hi Deepa

Read somewhere that you had contacted the dabbawallas for corporate talks etc. Can you provide some details on that? I am not able to find the right information....was looking for a member of their association to give a talk on the whole system from a logistics point of view..since we are a logistics company...any info you can share would be helpful..Thkls

Tia said...

Hey deepa, I came across this blog when i wanted to read authentic,daily life experiences of common man in Mumbai. I'm very happy that i found your blog! :) i like your honest narration minus the fancy blog apps ! :)....

tugbaturan said...

High Deepa!
Isn't it possible to leave a comment after reading you because you write so smooth and lovely!
I watched the movie "Lunchbox" and i was wondering why a system works like this. In the middle of the night i woke up and found your blog. And even if i was born in a traditional society, like Turkiye, i really get astonished about your traditions.
It's amazing that all the religions living together without humiliating each other. Although a high percentage of the community is Muslim in Turkiye we can't stop insulting as whats we called the "others".
How nice of you having this writings in English. I, myself write somethings about me and my country or my beloved son and dogs and cats, but i usually write them in Turkish. And how sad is the language that brings us together is the language of British people who exploited and ruled your country for their own interests.
I will be reading the other articles and you can be hearing from me from time to time.
For now, good night at all. Or may i say good morning for a few hours later you'll be waking up:)

Love from Turkiye.

mumbailocal said...

Just an amzing work by mumbai dabbawalas, team effort.I'm very happy that i found your blog.It's amazing that all the religions living together without humiliating each othe