It's Big Mac vs. Bombay's 'dabbawallahs'

Every day without fail, Umed Solani leaves for work without his lunchbox. But it's OK, because every day without fail it reaches him, thanks to an ingenious network of deliverymen that only exists in the city of Bombay.

It's a system that is so efficient and accurate that Forbes magazine recently compared it with a certain high-tech firm. But in a city with as many dietary rules as there are religions, the dabbawallahs, as the deliverymen are called, have to get it right every time. After all, a vegetarian-observant Hindu like Mr. Solani might lose his appetite if he received lamb biryani instead of his flatbread, vegetables, lentils, and rice.

"I've worked here for the last 40 years, and it happens very rarely that my dabba [lunchbox] gets lost," says Solani, manager of a clothing store in central Bombay. "It is very bad for your health, and very expensive, to eat outside everyday. With the dabba, the food becomes cold, but even then it's better."

Called tiffins or dabbas, these lunchboxes have become a source of jobs for the 4,500 dabbawallahs in Bombay, and a source of inexpensive home cooking for the hundreds of thousands who depend on them each day. The dabbas also serve as a kind of informal gauge on how willing the residents of India's most cosmopolitan city are to try out the food trends and fancies of the Western world, and to open up their wallets in the process. While more and more corporations are moving to India, hoping the massive Indian middle class will visit McDonald's or Pizza Hut at lunchtime, there's a rather obstinate group out there who demand mom's home cooking or nothing at all, thank you.

"Sometimes, people start eating outside food, but then they get digestive problems, and they always come back to their dabbas," says Subash Talekar, an official with the dabbawallahs' trade union, the Bombay Tiffinbox Suppliers Association. Besides, he says, "We're faster than any courier service in the world."

It's a service that could only work in India, where labor is plentiful and cheap, and only in Bombay, where the train network is so extensive and reliable.

The commuter trains link the teeming suburbs, where much of the population lives, to the downtown area where they work. This same rail network, with some 115 miles of track, allows dabbawallahs to deliver some 200,000 meals from kitchens to workplaces each day.

But what keeps Solani's dal and rice from getting mixed up with Mr. Hassan's lamb is an ingenious system of codes, colors, and symbols. It's a jargon that is understandable even to illiterate or semiliterate dabbawallahs. Some of the codes are commonsensical: A lunchbox with the acronym "LIC, 11," for instance, is destined to reach the 11th floor of the Life Insurance Corporation of India. Other symbols, including swastikas and less intelligible scribbles, tell the dabbawallah where the lunchbox will have to return just two hours after it is delivered, whether it's Juhu Lane in Western Bombay or Ghatkopar in Eastern Bombay.

A dabbawallah named Chandrakant Bacche takes a brief mid-morning break to explain how the whole system works. He has just sprinted up four flights of stairs, so he mops perspiration from his face and re-adjusts his white, army-style Gandhi cap, which nearly every dabbawallah wears. "I start the morning around 8 a.m. until 10:30, collecting dabbas, and five more people will handle them before they reach their final destination," says the rod-thin man, who charges 200 rupees ($4) per client per month and earns about 2,000 rupees ($40) per month.

Although he doesn't wear a watch, he arrives at the Solanis' apartment precisely at 10 a.m. every day. He cannot wait for long, because he has to deliver 20 lunchboxes from this neighborhood to the nearby train station, where he will hand them off to the next dabbawallah like a baton in a relay race - all in time for the 10:37 a.m. train. "Only a new person would make a mistake in this system," he says, adding with a smile, "I have never made a mistake."

With that comment, Mr. Bacche departs, carrying a lunch prepared by Solani's wife Jaswantiben. For her part, Jaswantiben (according to family tradition, she does not carry the Solani name) takes great pride in the fact that her husband has never been tempted by outside food, and that she has always been able to keep up with the rather fussy time schedule of the dabbawallahs. "For these dabbawallahs, 10 o'clock means 10 o'clock," she says, taking a breather out on the veranda of the family apartment. "They don't stand around for two minutes."

Asked if he worries about the future of dabbawallahs, at a time when India is opening up to Western companies and trends, union official Subash Talekar smiles. Trends come, and trends go, he says, but the bottom line is, "people still want home-cooked food."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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