Mumbai Dabbawalas

 | July 26,2010 11:06 am IST

It is a collective effort by semi-illiterate villagers of Mumbai who are providing fresh home-cooked meal to the students and working class of Mumbai for the last hundred years. For any collective action to happen, there must be some unfulfilled needs and wants, so towards the end of the 19th century, Mumbai saw huge influx of migrants from various parts of India, as lot of textile mills were getting established in and around Mumbai.

These people came without their families, and at that point of time, there was also no concept of canteens. Since working hours were very early, so they were also not able to prepare food for themselves. As these people came from different parts of the country, their food preferences were also different, but as a whole, they wanted fresh home-cooked food.


Mahadev Bache, who himself was migrant and came to Mumbai looking for a job, identified the need and thought of this mis-match in demand and supply as a good opportunity. He was a born leader, as in the 19th century itself, he was able to foresee opportunity in the food servicing business, and was also able to mobilize people to work with him. He recruited youth from his village, but since his idea was so new at that point of time, only youth with insufficient agricultural income came forward.


He started the operations in 1890 with a clear aim of providing fresh home-cooked food at reasonable rates, and most importantly, according to the taste preferences of customers. With an army of 20 dabbawalas and monthly charges of Rs. 2/- per month per customer, he targeted mainly textile mill workers as his prospective customers. Mahadev Bache was a great institutional builder and always led from the back to make dabbawalas self-reliant and managed to bring out their entrepreneurial skills. Although, today he is no more, but fundamentals of Mumbai Dabbawalas is so strong that it is commendable to see them scaling new heights and getting accolades from all over the world.


The organization became a charitable trust in 1956 and the current employee strength is around 5000 dabbawalas. Earnings per member are around Rs. 5000 - Rs. 6000/- per month, and around 2,00,000 tiffins gets handled on daily basis with utmost punctuality. Cost of service is very reasonable at Rs. 300/- per month per customer. Whatever be the external conditions, the customer will surely receive his/her tiffin. Their efficiency is so high that they got the six sigma award, as their error rate is only 1 in 16 million transactions. All of them belong to the same community - 'Maratha' - and came from some 7-8 villages near Pune. Most of them are having agricultural lands as their primary occupation. Although these people were not having any training in supply chain management, but still their commitment and zeal made sure that Mumbai dabbawala kept on increasing its customer base and won hearts of his loyal customers.


Talking about the organization structure and working style, as we know that for better communication between top management and employees, the institution must not have tall vertical hierarchy. So Mumbai dabbawalas follow the flat structure with only 3 layers for better communication between top management and dabbawalas. The first layer is top management, second is governing body, and third is dabbawalas themselves. Instead of following top down approach, they follow the bottom up approach. Dabbawalas have high degree of faith in the organization, and it is also one important factor that top management never indulges in any wrong activities.


Although attrition rate is almost nil, but still if some dabbawala leaves the organization for some or the other reason, than he always finds his replacement, so that work does not get disrupted. It is not a written rule, but they are following it for generations, as they feel that they have some responsibility towards organization. It is quite understandable that members will play an active role in institution building, if benefits which they derive far exceed the costs. So here dabbawalas are getting a decent salary of around Rs. 5000 - Rs. 6000/- per month, bonus every year, and the organization is investing part of its surplus in building fixed assets like schools and temples in their villages.


This entire framework depends on teamwork, cooperation and meticulous timing, as even if a single dabbawala takes leave without informing in advance, than it may jeopardize the operations for the whole day. Organization promotes both healthy competition as well as cooperation among members. They have 2-3 dabbawala groups in each operation area like Dadri or Churchgate and tiffin collection is group-wise, but transportation is shared with other groups. Competition is only up to collection of tiffins, and none of the group indulges into the cross-cutting of the customers. At the end of the year, profit is shared equally within each group after deducting expenses, irrespective of how many customers are there in each group.


As for any collective action to succeed, there must be some binding agents, and here each Dabbawala is share-holder of the organization, just like the Amul Cooperative Model, and it acts as a motivation for the dabbawalas to perform efficiently for the long term growth of the organization. By making them share-holders, the organization has not witnessed even a single strike in 100 years. Also, since they belong to same community and are from known villages, they directly or indirectly know each other and follow the same customs and traditions.


Success of any institution lies in the fact that it must provide win-win situation for both buyers and sellers. Hence, dabbawalas have kept the delivery rates so nominal (about Rs. 300 per month) that one simply wouldn't bargain any further. It provides very competitive rates to the house-wives who prepare fresh food for them to carry every morning, and also offer plethora of benefits to the dabbawalas. To ward off any competition from external world, Mumbai dabbawalas use the tactic of enhancing their services regularly, and recently, they started taking online orders through Internet. It never went outside the experience of its people and kept increasing its business in Mumbai only, as all dabbawalas are from the nearby region only and know the city and customers quite well.




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Jerome Quadros on 09/05/11 at 06:33 pm

While most of the packed meals (Dabbas) originate from homes, Tiffin suppliers also utilise the services of Dabbawalas to deliver meals to their customers. Over 200 Tiffin suppliers are listed in which is a portal for Tiffin services.