What is Mumbai Dabbawala

India: the lunch box wonder

Dabbawala are messengers who deliver more than 100,000 meals to the workplace in Mumbai every day: a veritable logistical masterpiece.

Ashok Sawant maneuvers his rickety bike through the streets. Cloth bags with colorful letters and numbers hang on his handlebars and on the luggage rack. Each has a metal can the size of a medium saucepan. Cars blow exhaust fumes into the air, motorbikes push him to the side, rattling motor rickshaws squeeze past, Bollywood music is booming from the radios.

Ashok rings the bell and starts pedaling. He's in Four Bungalows, a middle-class residential area in the north of the metropolis of Mumbai (Bombay), he's in a hurry. “My train will be leaving for the center in twenty minutes, there is still a lot to do before then!” He shouts.

Ashok is a dabbawala, a lunch box delivery man. The 26-year-old has been collecting freshly cooked lunches from his 20 customers in the suburbs for five years. Then he takes it to town by bike and train, where he delivers it to the husbands' workplaces. Punctually at half past twelve. What sounds simple is a logistical masterpiece, unique in the world.

Illiterate messengers

The metal warming boxes - the Indians call them Dabba - are used to distribute more than 100,000 meals a day in India's largest city. Criss-cross over 400 square kilometers with 18 million inhabitants. Neither lists nor the latest technologies are used. What counts is the excellent local knowledge of the Dabbawala and colored codes made up of letters and numbers that mark streets and house numbers. Most of the 5,000 lunchbox delivery men can neither read nor write, but they know the code inside out.

At nine in the morning, Ashok rings the doorbell of Ms. Bhagyashri. The 27-year-old is already waiting for the man in the typical outfit: in a white shirt, white trousers, with a white boat-like cap, the Nehru boat. For more than 120 years, the outfit of the Dabbawala has shaped the colorful cityscape of Mumbai. You can see them maneuvering their handcarts, full of colorful lunch boxes, through Mahalaxmi, an urban area around the railway station of the same name, where the white minaret of the Haji Ali shrine rises. You can spot them when they drag their bundles of bags through the Malabar Hill and Walkeshwar districts, past the Banganga fountain with the holy water of the Ganges and the enchanted Jain temple.

When the Indian Mahadu Havaji Bache founded the delivery service in 1890, he had immediate success. The English colonial rulers did not like the local cuisine and so came to home-made dishes. They called the warming boxes Tiffin Box. Today the Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Association is behind the Dabbawala. The bare office on Ranade Road is a focal point. This is where prices are calculated and orders are placed with the independent messenger. This is how Ashok came to Mrs. Bhagyashri.

The young mother is just handing over her dabba; four stacked metal bowls with fragrant curry, dried vegetables, rice and chapati, Indian flatbread. “This is how my husband likes it best,” she says and disappears into her apartment. Ashok is happy. The man with the black tilaka on his forehead - the blessing point of the Hindus - does not like to talk. He checks the strap fastener on the Tiffin box and hurries to the neighboring house.

Six Sigma Rating from "Forbes"

"The dabba service is sacred to us," reveals Namrata More. “Only when I cook can I be sure that the ingredients correspond to our religion. My husband almost likes to go hungry when his food doesn't arrive at the bank, ”says the 32-year-old teacher with a laugh. She has reason enough, because Mumbai's delivery system is more reliable than any other in the world. A few years ago the US magazine “Forbes” even gave it a Six Sigma rating - for only three incorrect deliveries out of a million food deliveries. Even Prince Charles came to town for the lunch box miracle. But the business alone boosts the steadily growing population of the metropolis. Religious Indians just don't like experimenting with eating.

Ashok looks at his gold watch and hurries out of the house. Is that fun for him? “Yes,” he says, weighing his head, “as Dabbawala I am my own boss, have a practical job and I help people.” Ashok used to work in a bank. He never liked it. Then his brother asked him if he wanted to become Dabbawala. Ashok didn't hesitate for a second. Today he earns 9,000 rupees a month, around 120 euros - a respectable income by Indian standards and significantly more than he got at the bank. At half past ten on the dot, thousands of people crowd into Andheri train station. In the middle of it all, the 20 dabbawala from Ashok's team check the codes of their lunch boxes. Ashok assigns his bags: those with a red R on the sidewalk, those with a white G in front of the bicycles parked on the tree. 500 cloth bags and metal cans pave the sidewalk, carefully sorted according to the delivery destination. Just one mistake and a dabba would go in the wrong direction. Like the other day, when Ashok had to pay a few rupees into the team's treasury. It hurts. He knots some bags in a bundle and hurries to the train.

The Western Railway rattles seven stops to Dadar, a busy intersection between the train lines. Ashok crouches on the floor in the luggage compartment, lunch boxes at his feet. He makes a phone call, arranges the next handover. This is necessary because some dabba goes through four different hands before reaching its destination. Outside, a colleague is balancing a wooden tray with two dozen bags on it. Crowds move back and forth whenever the train stops in the station. He jerks past laundries and the Dharavi slum, the largest poor district in Asia in the middle of the city.

With every stop, the puristic silver luggage compartment is transformed into a swelling splash of color from Tiffin bags. See you Dadar. Once there, Ashok swings his bundle over his shoulders, hurries along the platform, and trudges up the stairs. Another team will take over their Dabbas at the station entrance. In the evening Ashok will be back at Four Bungalows and give his customers the empty dabbas. Ms. Bagyashri, Ms. More and all the others will smile at him. Ashok will bow his head in embarrassment and then proudly fight his way through the bursting streets of Mumbai on his bike. As every day. And if you accompany a lunch box delivery man at work, you will get to know a whole new side of Mumbai and its sights.


Getting there: Flights from Vienna to Mumbai, for example, with Turkish Airlines (from 553 euros, turkishairlines.com) or KLM / Air France (from 604 euros, klm.com).

Package tours: If you want to accompany a Dabbawala, you can book a four-hour tour with an English-speaking tour guide at Tischler Reisen (from 51 euros, + 49 / (0) 8821/931 740, tischler-reisen.de). The Dabbawala Foundation also expects a donation of 150 euros per tour.

Stay: The Vivanta President has tasteful rooms in a quiet location in Mumbai. From 120 euros, Cuffe Parade 90, + 91 / (0) 22/666 508 08, vivantabytaj.com

General information:
Indian Tourist Office, Baseler Strasse 48, 60329 Frankfurt, + 49 / (0) 69/242 94 90, www.incredibleindia.org

Compliance notice: The author was supported by incredibleindia.org.

("Die Presse", print edition, January 27, 2018)