Mumbai's Amazing Dabbawalas

Rediff.com’s special feature on Mumbai’s “dabbawalas”, the 4500-strong tiffin-box suppliers’ community:

It’s a fascinating article, because this is the first article about the dabbawalas which doesn’t just offer empty praise about their efficiency and laud their “six-sigma” status, but delves into the internal orgranisational makeup of the community, their hiring, logistical and delivery techniques.

For us in the technology industry, the article offers a compelling analogy:

“In a way, MTBSA’s (Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Association) system is like the Internet. The Internet relies on a concept called packet switching. In packet switched networks, voice or data files are sliced into tiny sachets, each with its own coded address which directs its routing.

These packets are then ferried in bursts, independent of other packets and possibly taking different routes, across the country or the world, and re-assembled at their destination. Packet switching maximises network density, but there is a downside: your packets intermingle with other packets and if the network is overburdened, packets can collide with others, even get misdirected or lost in cyberspace, and almost certainly not arrive on time.”

And although they’re mostly semi-literate youth from the a certain community who’ve migrated to Mumbai in search of work, the organisation’s been quick to latch on to technology:

“Today customers can also log onto the website www.webrishi.com to access the service.”

There’s a lot to learn from the dabbawalas’ association:

1.) Co-operation from the local railways: There are a few special “dabbawala special” trains every morning running “down” (local lingo for “towards CST/Churchgate”, the two terminuses of the Central and Western local railway networks). Also, “The railway provides sorting areas on platforms as well as special compartments on trains traveling south between 10.00 am and 11.30 am.”

2.) Flat org. chart: i.) “…there is no organisational structure, managerial layers or explicit control mechanisms. The rationale behind the business model is to push internal competitiveness, which means that the four Vile Parle groups vie with each other to acquire new customers.” ii.) “Here nobody is an employer and none are employees. Each dabbawala considers himself a shareholder and entrepreneur.”

3.) Well-tuned financial disbursal system: “
Money is collected in the first week of every month and remitted to the mukadam on the first Sunday. He then divides the money equally among members of that group. It is assumed that one dabbawala can handle not more than 30-35 customers given that each tiffin weighs around 2 kgs. And this is the benchmark that every group tries to achieve.”

4.) Community model: i.) “From his earnings of between Rs 5,000 to Rs 6,000, every dabbawala contributes Rs15 per month to the association. The amount is utilised for the community’s upliftment, loans and marriage halls at concessional rates. All problems are usually resolved by association officials whose ruling is binding.” ii.) “This system accommodates those who didn’t or couldn’t finish their studies. It’s obvious that those who score good marks go for higher education and not to do this job, but we have people who have studied up to standard twelve who couldn’t find respectable jobs.”

5.) Self-sufficiency: “…each dabbawala, like any businessman, has to bring some capital with him. The mini-mum investment is two bicycles (approximately Rs 4,000), a wooden crate for the tiffins (Rs 500), at least one white cotton kurta-pyjama (Rs 600), and Rs 20 for the trademark Gandhi topi.”

5.) Internal competition: “
Typically, a twenty member group has 675 customers and earns Rs 100,000 per month which is divided equally even if one dabbawala has 40 customers while another has 30. Groups compete with each other, but members within a group do not. It’s common sense, points out one dabbawala.”