All Dabbawala's belong to the Warkari community. They still wear the same attire with a Gandhi Topi. (Hat)
The dabbawala originated when India was under British rule: many British people who came to the colony didn't like the local food, so a service was set up to bring lunch to these people in their workplace straight from their home. Nowadays, Indian businessmen are the main customers for the dabbawalas, and the service includes cooking as well as delivery.
At 19,373 persons per square kilometer, Mumbai is India's most densely populated city with a huge flow of traffic. Because of this, lengthy commutes to workplaces are common, with many workers traveling by train.
Instead of going home for lunch or paying for a meal in a café, many office workers have a cooked meal sent by a caterer who delivers it to them as well, essentially cooking and delivering the meal in lunch boxes and then having the lunch boxes collected and re-sent the next day. This is usually done for a monthly fee. The meal is cooked in the morning and sent in lunch boxes carried by dabbawalas, who have a complex association and hierarchy across the city.
A collecting dabbawala, usually on bicycle, collects dabbas from homes or, more often, from the dabba makers (who actually cook the food). The dabbas have some sort of distingushing mark on them, such as a color or symbol (most dabbawalas are illiterate).
The dabbawala then takes them to a designated sorting place, where he and other collecting dabbawalas sort (and sometimes bundle) the lunch boxes into groups. The grouped boxes are put in the coaches of trains, with markings to identify the destination of the box (usually there is a designated car for the boxes). The markings include the rail station to unload the boxes and the building address where the box has to be delivered. At each station, boxes are handed over to a local dabbawala, who delivers them. The empty boxes, after lunch, are again collected and sent back to the respective houses.
Everyone who works within this system is treated as an equal. Regardless of a dabbawala's function, everyone gets paid about 2-4,000 rupees per month. More than 175,000-200,000 lunches get moved every day by an estimated 4,500-5,000 dabbawalas, all with an extremely small nominal fee and with utmost punctuality. According to a recent survey, there is only one mistake in every 6,000,000 deliveries. The American business magazine Forbes gave a Six Sigma performance rating for the precision of dabbawalas.
The BBC has produced a documentary on Dabbawalas, and Prince Charles, during his visit to India, visited them (he had to fit in with their schedule, since their timing was too precise to permit any flexibility). Owing to the tremendous publicity, some of the dabbawalas were invited to give guest lectures in top business schools of India, which is very unusual. Most remarkably, the success of the dabbawala trade has involved no modern technology. The main reason for their popularity could be the Indian people's aversion to fast food outlets and their love of home-made food.
The service is uninterrupted even on the days of extreme weather, such as Mumbai's characteristic monsoons. The local dabbawalas at the receiving and the sending ends are known to the customers personally, so that there is no question of lack of trust. Also, they are well accustomed to the local areas they cater to, which allows them to access any destination with ease. Occasionally, people communicate between home and work by putting messages on chits inside the boxes. Of course, this was before the telecommunications revolution.
Today, you can get this Dabba meal delivered by using a SMS. Dabbawala's also have a tie up with Microsoft. They push the Microsoft product pamphlets and if they complete the sale, then the Dabbawala get Rs. 100, and the buyer gets a special discount on the laptop of desktop of their choice.