FT : Mumbai’s Incredible Dabbawallas

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The office of Mumbai’s undisputed master of logistics is in a small slum, located “Near Fly-Over Bridge, Andheri East”, as his card says.  But do not let the modest surroundings fool you.  From this small room, Raghunath D. Medge runs what is perhaps India’s most effective delivery force: Mumbai’s army of “dabbawallas”, or tiffin (lunch) box suppliers.  Every day, the dabbawallas deliver with faultless precision 200,000 meals to workers in the city direct from their homes in the suburbs using nothing but the city’s battered commuter railway system and bicycles.  So impressive is their operation that Mr Medge, whose formal title is president of the Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust, is regularly visited by everyone from academics and journalists to Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales.  He is also courted by corporates keen to get access to his unparalleled distribution network – his latest suitor is Bharti Airtel, the country’s biggest mobile carrier.  Mr Medge could hardly be more dismissive of all of the attention. “Only the educated people have all sorts of questions about this and that. For a dabbawala, all he cares about is doing his job right and keeping the customer happy.”  To fully appreciate the dabbawallas’ achievements, a person first needs to see the rickety state of Mumbai’s infrastructure.  A trip to the airport that should take 30 minutes can take two hours due to chronic congestion.  The trains are so overcrowded that people are frequently killed falling off the roofs of the carriages or being hit by poles alongside the tracks as they hang out of the doors.  Monsoon rains regularly bring the city to a halt.  Yet none of this fazes the dabbawallas.  Daily, from about 9am, each dabbawalla collects a tiffin carrier – a tall, cylindrical, stacking metal food container loaded with different dishes – from 35 customers’ homes in the suburbs.  The colour-coded tiffin carriers are put in the luggage compartments of suburban trains and taken to the city, where the correct tiffin carriers are delivered to the correct individual customers starting at about 12.30pm, in time for lunch.  From 1.15pm, the dabbawallas begin collecting the tiffin carriers again to deliver them back to individual customers’ homes, in a reversal of the whole process. 

Like any successful corporation, the dabbawallas have a firmly entrenched culture and well-developed sense of mission and branding.  Founded in 1890, they claim to be descendants of the soldiers of Shivaji, the 17th century king who held off the Muslims in the area that is now the western state of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the modern capital.  Most of them are shareholders of the trust, drawing a monthly salary of about Rs5,000.  “People recognize us by our Gandhi topi [hat] and our white kurta pyjama, which is our biggest brand,” says Mr Medge.  While their average education is eighth grade, and many are illiterate, the dabbawallas have been given a Six Sigma performance rating of 99.999999 by consultants and a quality management system standard ISO 9001:2000 certificate.  They claim to have an error rate of 1 in 16m.  “We don’t use technology, we rely on manpower,” says Mr Medge.  Little wonder then that companies ranging from Microsoft to Bharti have sought them out as potential partners.  In Bharti’s case, the mobile company is keen to piggy-back on the dabbawallas’ reputation for trustworthiness to help it sell more phones in what is one of the country’s most saturated markets.  Under the scheme, Bharti provides the dabbawallas with advertising pamphlets to distribute when they are doing their rounds.  If a customer rings the number on the pamphlet and a sale is made, the individual dabbawalla gets a commission…..It is also fitting that the dabbawallas recently started accepting bookings by text message.  For his part, Mr Medge does not seem surprised that large corporates vie for his attention.  “Big multinationals come to learn from us,” he shrugs.  And almost nothing stops the dabbawallas.  In the days following a series of bomb blasts on the city’s commuter trains last year, the dabbawallas continued to deliver using the rail lines that were still functioning.  Still, he admits that Mumbai’s infrastructure could be better.  He had his eyes opened during a trip to London in 2005, when his old friend, Prince Charles, invited him to his wedding with Camilla Parker-Bowles.  While thousands of weary British commuters might beg to disagree, London’s Underground was, to Mr Medge, “like heaven”.

Reference : http://www.ft.com/cms/a/92d94ba6-24e4-11d8-81c6-08209b00dd01,id=070508000535.html

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