After the pandemic shut offices and put Mumbai’s renowned lunchbox deliverymen out of work, the 130-year-old “dabbawala” network has tied up with a trendy restaurant chain to take on India’s billion-dollar start-ups.
For two decades, neither terror attacks nor monsoon deluges could stop Kailash Shinde from delivering hot lunches to Mumbai office workers, until lockdowns put the father-of-two on a forced hiatus for a whole year.
“It’s been very difficult,” the 42-year-old said. “I had to sell what I could and work odd jobs to get by.”
Instantly recognisable in his traditional Gandhi cap and white Indian attire, Shinde is one of 5,000 dabbawalas – or “lunchbox men” in Hindi – who have gained global recognition for delivering home-cooked food with clockwork precision.
An intricate system of alphanumeric codes helps the largely semi-literate or illiterate workforce collect, sort and distribute 200,000 meals across Mumbai each day via bicycles, hand carts and a sprawling local train network.
Their work has been studied as a “model of service excellence” at Harvard Business School, and inspired personal visits from Richard Branson, Prince Charles and executives from global delivery giants FedEx and Amazon, among others.
But with extended lockdowns forcing millions of Mumbai’s white-collar professionals to work from home, many dabbawalas have been struggling to feed their own families since April last year.
“Our members have had to work as security guards and labourers, in addition to seeking jobs as deliverymen for restaurants,” said Ulhas Muke of the Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust, which represents the workforce.
‘Mumbai’s original deliverymen’
But delivery jobs are harder to come by in a space now increasingly dominated by mobile apps, especially for people like 39-year-old Pandurang Jadhav, who can’t read or write.
Unemployed for the first time since becoming a dabbawala aged 17, Jadhav moved to his ancestral village and spent the last year farming rice.
The earnings were meagre and he desperately missed Mumbai, where he managed 30 men.
“I used to love working as a dabbawala,” he said, describing it as “the best job”.
Help arrived this May in the form of a tie-up with some of Mumbai’s most popular eateries, allowing Jadhav and 30 others to return to work.
Instead of handling home-cooked meals packed in stainless steel tiffin boxes, he is now delivering restaurant staples from nachos to spaghetti carbonara to time-starved professionals as they continue working from home for a second year.
The scheme offers restaurateurs an alternative to the prevailing local duopoly of delivery giants Zomato and Swiggy, whose steep discounts and razor-thin margins have slashed their profits.
“We are trying to find a way out of the tyranny of the aggregators,” said Riyaaz Amlani, the owner of Impresario Restaurants, which operates 57 outlets across more than a dozen Indian cities.
“Of course we want to help the dabbawalas. They are the original deliverymen of Mumbai,” he said.
A new beginning
Amlani plans to expand his partnership with the dabbawalas, but analysts say that alone may not be enough to help the famed deliverymen survive the pandemic.
“It is paramount for them to be flexible at this point,” said Sreedevi R, an assistant professor at Mumbai’s SP Jain Institute of Management and Research.
“The dabbawalas could become delivery agents for last-mile delivery not just for restaurants but also for any e-commerce business,” she said.
But a lack of literacy means many of them are reluctant to take on work that requires tech-savvy skills.
Muke, of the dabbawala representative group, is instead finalising plans to set up a commercial kitchen of their own, delivering inexpensive meals across Mumbai.
He has already secured millions of dollars in donations, including a hefty $2 million contribution from banking giant HSBC, with the kitchen due to open in the next few weeks.
“My grandfather was a dabbawala, and then my uncle and now I am,” Muke said.
“This is the work that I like doing. I want to keep delivering food to people.”