Mumbai's dabbawalas face fear of extinction

Updated: Jun 02, 2019, 14:35 IST | Anju Maskeri |

With schools choosing to discontinue their services over security reasons, a dabbawala of 25 years wonders what the future holds for this much feted Mumbai service

Kailash Shinde at Grant Road station. Pic/Sayyed Sameer Abedi
Kailash Shinde at Grant Road station. Pic/Sayyed Sameer Abedi

Kailash Shinde begins his day at six am. At quarter past seven, he boards the Churchgate-bound train from Andheri and alights at Grant Road station, where he meets 12 other dabbawalas from South Mumbai. The tiffins, labelled using a system of hand painted numbers, denoting where the lunchbox is supposed to be picked up from and delivered to, are assembled and ready to be shipped out. "Our group alone handles close to 550 dabbas in a day," says the 41-year-old. There are several such groups whose network is spread across the city. This has pretty much been Shinde's routine for the last 25 years. His late father, Madhav, was also in the same profession. "I've been a dabbawala for so long that I cannot imagine doing any other job," he adds.

That Shinde is being compelled to mull over an alternative profession after two decades is the result of a series of recent developments. Last month, a school in Dongri discontinued their service. It's one of the many schools that have debarred dabbawalas from delivering lunch to students in the last two years. "They didn't even bother to give us a reason or notify us in advance. It was very arbitrary," Shinde says. He has reason to fear.

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Schools constitute a chunk of their earnings. "Swiggy hasn't affected our business to this degree because schools were our primary source followed by workplaces," says Shinde. An instance such as this would have probably been considered a stray incident 10 years ago, but it has now snowballed into a trend, one that is giving the community sleepless nights.

"It started with Cathedral and John Cannon School 10 years ago and then slowly other schools began doing the same," he says. Last year, GD Somani in Colaba, Queen Mary at Grant Road, New Era at Gowalia Tank and Bengali School, Fountain, followed suit. Fearing that it might systematically wipe out their source of livelihood, Subhash Talekar, president of the Mumbai Dabbawala Association, recently issued a press note. This prompted Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis to make a statement ordering the school authorities to facilitate dabbawala services.

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Shinde, who currently earns Rs 14K per month, fears his earnings may drastically reduce if this continues. "I can't turn to farming as you can see farmers are dire straits themselves," he says. Talekar finds it baffling that the issue of security and hygiene are being raised at this point. "We have been catering to convent school since they came into existence. Why is this issue cropping up now?" he asks. It's after all, a home-cooked meal. The dabba system, as we know it today, officially started in 1890. According to Talekar, the reason is rooted in school authorities wanting to further their own business.

"These days, children are instructed to buy books, uniform and other academic paraphernalia from the school itself. Sometimes, the prices are higher than the market rate. Similarly, when it comes to food, they have tie ups with the canteen and earn commissions," he says, adding that the option for kids, then, is to carry lunch with them. "This again is impractical because schools start as early as 7 am." Talekar believes the solution lies in allowing parents and children to make a choice. "Our take is why impose at all. If a child wants to eat home food or from the school canteen, let him do so. Don't clamp down."

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