One morning, back to a few weeks ago during our stay in Mumbai, we went to a special meeting: we had to be at 11.30am sharp in front of Victoria Station – also known under its new marathi name, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. Who where we supposed to meet? Some of the 5,000 dabbawallahs of Mumbai, these lunch bow delivery men with a flawless organization, who carry up to 175,000 meals a day to the office workers in the city.
Let us explain a bit more. Every day, hundreds of thousands of Indian workers leave their home in the suburbs of Mumbai at dawn and hop on trains to reach their office somewhere in the centre of the city, sometimes after more than one hour of transportation. Every day, their spouse cook them a homemade meal for lunch, as Indians are still very reluctant to eating in fast food restaurants or even eating something that was not prepared at home – mostly because diets vary depending on their casts. Every day, after their husband’s departure for work, these wives leave the meals they had time to prepare with a delivery man, a dabbawallah (literally meaning box person) who collect dozens of boxes in his neighbourhood and takes a train to the city. Every day just before noon, thousands of dabbawallahs arrive in the 3 main train stations of Mumbai and dispatch the 175,000 meals that will be delivered safe and sound to the right person. Every day, each office worker gets exactly his lunch on time and as expected, before sending back the empty box to his house through the same organization.
And the system is almost unerring. Research estimate that the error rate of this big enterprise is less than one every 6 million deliveries, thanks to its beehive-like functioning, the use of precise writings and – obviously – a little bit of magic. And their logistics is so surprising and stunning that the dabbawallahs are even the subject of a case study by Havard Business School.
At 11.30am this morning, we stood on the front of the station and gazed at the procession of the tiffins, the other word for these iron boxes that contain the meals of the Mumbaikars. A dabbawallah shows up, carrying a tray of tiffins on his head. He drops it off on the pavement, divides the tiffins up in several groups according to some logic we would never get, then loads an empty cart with them and leaves to deliver the right meal to the right person, right on time. And this goes on for an hour, in front of the few cameras of the small group of impressed tourists that we were part of that day.