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If dabbawalas symbolize the food line, the local trains stand for the life line. However, with the ensuing COVID-19 pandemic, both of these lines have stopped functioning.
The term “dabbawala” has never been unfamiliar to me. But it was enriching to know in depth how the Dabbawala brigade functions from someone who is connected to the very core of that community.
The director and co-founder of Speaking Minds, Raga Olga D’Silva, in yet another interesting session (May 19) of her “From The Other Side” series, brings to the table Dr. Pawan Agrawal. An international motivational speaker, with his doctoral thesis titled, “A Study Of Logistics and Supply Chain Management of Dabbawala in Mumbai”, he unveils the interesting story of the dabbawalas as he sadly shares how the COVID-19 crisis has hit them hard.
Embedded in the heart and soul of Mumbai is the story of the dabbawalas. To quote Raga, “If Mumbai is an emotion, dabbawalas are a part of that emotion”. It is a tradition that dates back to 1890.
Dr. Pawan Agrawal explains how contrary to what some people think, dabbawalas are not caterers. They are individuals who collect home-cooked food from door to door and get them delivered to customers during lunchtime. At the end of the day, they return the empty dabbas (lunch boxes) to those homes from which they had picked up the food.
It is a very well-organized system with everything in place. Local trains with luggage compartments are used to transfer the boxes back and forth. At one end, dabbawalas pick up the lunch boxes from homes and carry them to the station to be loaded on to a local train. At the other end, there is another batch of dabbawalas who collect the dabbas after they are unloaded and deliver them to offices. This is the type of arrangement that runs along different lines in Mumbai. The city has around 5,000 dabbawalas, mostly on bicycles, who help deliver 200,000 lunch boxes per day.
So impressive is the business of the Dabawallas that their management skills have drawn attention worldwide; their fan club even includes Prince Charles and business magnate Richard Branson. Harvard Business School did a case study on their excellence, and the Forbes magazine had heaps of praise for their efficiency.
Pawan Agrawal says that if dabbawalas symbolize the food line, the local trains stand for the life line. However, with the ensuing COVID-19 pandemic, both of these lines have stopped functioning. People have been working from homes; hence dabbawala services have been suspended too.
A hundred-and-thirty year-old tradition has come to a pause at a great cost to the dabbawalas who are dependent on it for their livelihood. Engulfed by emotion, Agrawal says: “kal tak ka annadata aaj khud anaj ke liye haat jor rahe hein‘ (Those who till yesterday had fed others are now joining hands asking for their grains) .
With no provident fund, no life insurance policy, and no fixed deposits, they are in a very precarious state. According to Agrawal, the only benefit they might be having is perhaps a home belonging to their forefathers.
About 50 to 60 percent of the dabbawalas have shifted to villages where they can depend on farming and at least have something to eat. With pride and respect for the community, Agrawal talks about the dabbawalas as honest, hardworking people. Their strong work ethic stays undeterred in spite of the circumstances in which their survival is at stake. He said that during this hour of need, dabbawalas still do not like to accept favors for free. Even to accept a 10 kg bag of rice, they offer to work in some way.
There are NGO’s working to help the dabbawalas at this crucial time. In some cases, the dabbawalas are assisting in the delivery process because they are very familiar with the streets. It is heartening to read how some of these have identified the most needy families to supply essentials and daily rations.
Dr. Agrawal discussed two projects he has taken up to help out those who are still in Mumbai. In one, he has purchased huge quantities of agricultural items from famers in the villages, and in the other, he has bought masks, sanitizers, and other safety materials from companies. Whatever profit is made by selling the stuff is distributed among the dabbawalas, and even paperwalas who are helping in delivery. He is stocking the food items in three district schools and involving teachers who have been without pay during this period in the distribution process. Agrawal feels proud to be serving society by selling groceries and using the proceeds to help people during this time.
The future is uncertain, and we are not sure whether the dabbawala business will resume. As much as he appreciates and acknowledges the donations that the public makes, Pawan Agrawal feels that this is not a long-term solution. What is important is finding future avenues of employment for the dabbawalas.
Looking ahead, Dr. Agrawal has thoughts in mind. He foresees that it will be very difficult for dabbawalas to get access into complexes, and there will be restrictions in getting in and out. If at all the business resumes, they could use disposable corrugated boxes to carry food in place of the aluminum containers. That will eliminate the burden of having to come again to collect the empty dabbas from the customers.
He also says that they could perhaps have a kitchen maintaining all standards of hygiene, and those willing to help can assist in having the food delivered to customers. It is felt that this is economically feasible too, with an estimated cost of just 60 to 70 rupees per meal.
Everything is left to speculation. As Raga poses the question as to whether dabbawalas need to look for alternative employment, Dr. Agrawal replies that such a situation might arise. Referring to the example of Tilak Mehta, who launched a courier service as a 13-year-old and involved dabbawalas in his business, Agrawal feels there could be collaboration in the future.
Pawan Agrawal emphasizes that he is concerned not just for the dabbawalas but also for all those who are being affected by the lockdown and the slowing of business. This includes those individuals selling flowers or delivering newspapers and many others who are having to think about two square meals a day.
In the discussion with Raga, he talks about children in the villages who do not have the access to online education. For them, notebooks, pens, pencils, and other educational and study materials are still very important. He makes an appeal that we pay attention and see if we can help these underprivileged children in any way we can through charitable donations.
Rain or shine, dabbawalas, within the framework of a very simple operating system, have demonstrated a high level of performance. Their commitment and sense of duty is exemplary. At this juncture, no one knows what possibly could be the fate of the dabbawalas. We can only hope and pray that they once again bounce back to activity and be the beat in the heart of Mumbai’s city life.
Born in India, Rashmi Bora Das moved to the United States in the early nineties.
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