Tradition to tech: Here’s how Mumbai's dabbawalas are embracing change

05 December,2023 11:45 AM IST |  Mumbai  |  Sanjana Deshpande

The dabbawalas, clad in white outfits and Gandhi caps, are a symbol of Mumbai`s cultural identity. However, they are struggling to make ends meet due to the pandemic and have faced hardships during the lockdowns.

Mumbai`s dabbawalas preparing to deliver lunchboxes/ AFP

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Montages in films based in Mumbai recurrently feature a scene of a crowd in motion at a suburban railway station, often picturising grandeur stations like Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus. Even in the crowd, one community could be distinguished and they are the 'dabbawalas'.

Clad in a white outfit with a Gandhi cap, the dabbawalas' story often unfolds amid the city's cacophony; the community has become a symbol of the city's cultural identity.

Who are the dabbawalas?

Dabbawalas are a cohort of lunchbox deliverymen who navigate through Mumbai's labyrinthine streets with clockwork precision and their modus operandi is simple--collect home-cooked meals from thousands of homes and deliver them to the officer workers across the wide expanse of the city and its suburbs.

The semi-literate or illiterate workforce, through an intricate system of alphanumeric codes, collect, sort and distributes lakhs of meals across the city every day using bicycles, hand carts and the sprawling local train network.

History of the Dabbawalas

The community has a unique history which began nearly 130 years ago and started with the desire of a Parsi banker who wished to eat home-cooked meals at his workplace. He first entrusted the responsibility to Mumbai's first-ever dabbawala. Over the years the community thrived and could fulfill the hunger of almost 200,000 Mumbaikars.

What began as informal work was streamlined to its present-day operations by Mahadeo Havaji Bachche who began the system with 100 dabbawalas.

Struggles during lockdown

The dabbawalas that have a rich legacy, though, are struggling to make ends meet, especially since the pandemic. Numerous reports surfaced after the lockdowns documenting the struggles faced by the community.

Recounting the same, Ramdas Karvande, the chief of the Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Association, says that the community is still largely facing the brunt of the pandemic. He pointed out that from a population of 5,000, the dabbawalas in the city today are not more than 2000.

"Many people left the city to go back to their villages during lockdowns announced by the government. Even after the restrictions were lifted, since many were still working from home, not everyone has returned to the city," Karvande noted.

He elaborated, "Since the number of customers has significantly reduced, some dabbawalas have been working other gigs. Some either have taken up work as security guards or they also have registered as delivery executives for the online delivery or courier apps."

Karvande said that some of them had to resort to other means of earning livelihood since their work as dabbawala has not been generating enough money to help them sustain themselves.

The dabbawalas noted that during the lockdowns, they survived on the grains they grew on their farms, donations received and government assistance.

Resilience despite struggles to make ends meet

However, there are still a few who have not taken up other jobs and continue to be dabbawala. When quizzed why, Shantaram Gargote, said, "Not all of us are well educated or trained for other vocational work which leaves with little scope for alternative work opportunities. We, before COVID hit, made at least Rs 15,000 to Rs 20,000 which was enough to sustain; however, since post-pandemic, the income has dropped by 50 per cent and we at most make Rs 10,000."

He lamented that one has to keep going at it and work to put food on the table for their family. "We are still doing it because it's all we know and we also grew to love this work," Gargote, who has been working as a dabbawala for 25 years, said.

But for some, it's also a means to preserve tradition. Another dabbawala told mid-day that he is the third generation of dabbawalas. "We believe that delivering lunchboxes is not a job, it's a service we are doing to our community. There's a saying that one who feeds others first and then eats is a noble individual and thus we have been continuing this work for three generations."

Despite the lockdown shutting their entire business, the community is still resilient.

Other challenges faced

As mentioned previously, the dabbawalas have majorly relied on public transport facilities-especially the local trains and continue to do so. However, changes to the local train schedule due to the addition of air-conditioned train services are affecting their work.

Also read: Local train experience: Frustration mounts for Mumbai commuters using AC local trains

With the introduction of air-conditioned local trains, a dabbawala noted, that their functioning is being affected and there have been discrepancies. "The railways have recently increased the air-conditioned local services which has landed us in a pickle. We cannot travel in those locals since it does not have a luggage compartment and it is not feasible for us either to board the train with the amount of baggage we carry," he pointed out.

He said that the Railway authorities should consider having a dedicated luggage compartment in AC locals. He urged that metro officials should consider adding a dedicated compartment so all avenues of public transport are accessible to them.

How have they fared in digital times?

Food delivery applications, which were a rage in the market, have taken a few lunches off the dabbawalas plate with many opting to ‘swiggying' whatever they want.

With the digital advancement, things have become a little more difficult for them to sustain, expressed Shantaram. "With the food delivery apps like Swiggy and Zomato deliver hot food rather swiftly. This has put a dent in our customer base," he expressed.

However, others remained optimistic that even if reduced, their customer base is steady.

Shantaram further stated that the technology has also helped them a lot. He said that the customers can now contact the dabbawalas using WhatsApp, or their website. The digitisation has enabled them to reach a wider audience, he points out.

While Karvande added that they are also thinking of starting pick-up and drop services for grocery items; he said discussions are underway to understand how they can realise the idea through digital means wherein a dabbawala can also be assigned to deliver the customer items they want to be brought from general stores.

"We want to bring back the dabbawalas who are still in their native places and thus we are planning to start our kitchen and we will deliver the food we make there. Work for the kitchen has almost begun and it should open soon," Karvande, who has been working as a dabbawala for three decades said.

Although they admit that it has been a boon and bane for the dabbawalas, some noted that not everyone is tech-savvy or can afford to buy a smartphone which are the hurdles they have to overcome to completely accept and adopt digitisation.

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