The Amazing Dabbawalas

In 1995, a regional political party named Shiv Sena came into power in India and followed through on a campaign promise to rename the city of Bombay to Mumbai. Which is understandable. No one wants colonial names around. That’s how [King] Charles Town, South Carolina became Charleston.

Still, Mumbai wasn’t very noteworthy until May 11, 1661. That’s when England’s King Charles (hey, the “Charles Town” guy!) acquired Bombay as part his new wife’s dowry. She was Catherine of Braganza, daughter of King John IV of Portugal. Charles in turn leased the land to the English East India Company for £10 a year. And when the East India Company got serious about building a trading center there, they didn’t play around. The population exploded from 10,000 Bombayites in 1661 to 60,000 by 1675. Long story short: the East India Company turned Bombay into a gigantic trading city. For decades, it was a money-printing machine for the British Empire.

But here’s the thing: most people settling in Bombay were traders from all over southeast Asia. Which was a problem. With so many different cultures and tastes and religions, it was hard for anyone to run a successful restaurant that suited everyone. So, in Bombay the practice became to just go home for lunch, or have your wife or maid bring you lunch, or meet you at a park… or something. By 1890, Bombay had become enough of a modern business city that many Bombayites were going to offices every day.

This is where dabbawalas come in. Every workday morning they stop by their customer’s houses to pick up a hot meal, prepared by the wife or household staff, packed in a series of stackable metal dishes called a tiffin or dabba. Each dabba is labeled with a unique destination code that uses symbols, colors, letters, and numbers. This system is universal to dabbawalas and is easily picked up by illiterate dabbawalas.

Tiffin
A typical tiffin or dabba.

The dabbawala picks up all the dabbas from his customers and heads to the nearest train station. He will meet other dabbawalas and may exchange some dabbas with them, whichever is most efficient. He then takes the train downtown and meets other dabbawalas, again exchanging dabbas. He then delivers all his meals, then rests for bit before doing it all again in reverse, picking up all the empty dabbas from offices, exchanging them with other dabbawalas as needed, and returning them to their homes.

Even though there are no computers whatsoever in this system, and even though most dabbawalas only have a rudimentary education (at best), this system is often claimed to be the most reliable and most accurate delivery service in the world. On a typical workday, dabbawalas deliver over 200,000 meals, and average fewer than 4 delivery errors per *million* transactions. That’s astounding. Dabbawalas take their jobs very seriously. In a city where the trains may not run on time, and the phone\power\internet go down way more often than they should, dabbawalas are SERIOUS about making sure you at least your lunch on time.

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