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Home > News > Opinion News > Article > Lets back the dabbawala

Let’s back the dabbawala

Updated on: 17 July,2023 06:57 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Fiona Fernandez |

With news that the city’s OG lunch suppliers taking the community kitchen route, we’d like to see more citizens back the dabbawala, once again

Let’s back the dabbawala

Representation Pic

Fiona FernandezThis columnist clearly remembers an encounter from over a decade ago with the dabbawalas, her first face-to-face chat with them. It was for a story in this newspaper where I was to interview them because the Mumbai dabbawala was the theme chosen to represent Maharashtra at the Republic Day parade in New Delhi that year. An 11-member team was in the National Capital for rehearsals before the big day. 

The tableau was designed by students of Sir JJ School of Art and showcased the dabba delivery system, from point to point, with bicycles, handcarts, et al. I recall meeting members of the core group who were happy carrying on with their daily routine and extremely proud that their colleagues from the Mumbai Dabbawala Association were carrying their flag high for their service-driven cause all the way at the biggest stage as all eyes of India were on their amazing idea and professionalism.

During that interaction, I was taken through their world-famous coding system, how they’ve managed to maintain an impressive success record, and witnessed their camaraderie first hand. It was one thing to watch this band of workers go about their task from a distance until then, almost like they form part of the woodwork of the city, but another to watch them execute this system from close range. I came back thoroughly impressed and far more respectful and aware of this community’s gift to the city. It all made sense as business honchos and heads of state shared photo-ops with them, including the present King of England, Charles III.

Over the years, as the city and its entrepreneurial spirit grew, they have had to face all kinds of hardships, in the form of apps and aggregators emerging from all sides, giving them a tough run for their money. The pandemic and the ensuing lockdowns had also caused a huge hit to the community. This newspaper itself had mentioned the many measures that had to be initiated including fundraisers to keep them afloat through those forgettable times. The people of this city, we’d like to believe, didn’t let them down, or forget this integral cog in their daily grind. But Mumbai is a tough city, and tough times mean having to take risks to evolve and more importantly, ensure their 130-year-old legacy remains alive.

It’s why the news first reported in this newspaper that they are offering tiffins prepared by women self-help groups is a welcome, timely decision. The centralised kitchens will serve hot, fresh food from their homes and will be delivered by the 5,000-strong workforce of dabbawalas to all parts of the city.  

The trials were heartwarming, with the idea receiving several backers already. Now it’s up to the hungry Mumbaikar to avail of this facility to insure their longevity in every sense. The larger picture, however, must be looked into. While it will take some time to be able fully gauge the success of this new system to prop the dabbawala, I am sure that I am not in a minority when I feel that this needs solid, sustainable backing from all quarters to be a win-win scenario. These self-help groups must be allowed and given maximum financial support to remain in circulation and be able to work in sync with our beloved dabbawalas. For starters, it’s a good sign that these women home chefs from several self-help groups have found gainful employment and hence, will be eager to make this collaboration work for them.

That brings us to another factor—that of keeping time with this new system. Mumbaikars swear by it. Look at the reaction from a local train or BEST bus commuter when their mode of transport arrives late. The dabbawalas have an unbelievable record; the processes are taught in business schools, and our citizens have gotten used to their mind-boggling time management skills, come rain or shine. We were blown by this fact that was shared to us from that meeting: The dabbawalas even gave King Charles III a precise time slot for their meeting, so thousands wouldn’t have to sip their lunch. I am pretty sure they will have that part ironed out alright.

This brings us to the final point of our discussion around this development. Will the Mumbaikar back this idea 100 per cent and remain loyal to this good old delivery system? Your guess is as good as ours. With food apps offering all kinds of offers and discounts, throwing in cool deals, how will our dabbawala beat the odds? One hopes citizens don’t forget this silent service provider of lunch-hour bliss who travels the length and breadth of the city, to ensure the joy of a home-cooked meal is shared with their loved one, far, far away. A tad too nostalgic, no? But that’s why we must always salute not just the charm but the grit of this long-running engine that remains steadfast  to its cause—to keep the working Mumbaikar a happy, satisfied lot. And that in itself is a great gift to so many millions. 

mid-day’s Features Editor Fiona Fernandez relishes the city’s sights, sounds, smells and stones...wherever the ink and the inclination takes her. She tweets @bombayana
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