A dabbawala (one who carries the box), sometimes spelled dabbawalla , tiffinwalla , tiffinwalla or dabbawallah, is a person in the Indian city of Mumbai whose job is to carry and deliver freshly made food from home in lunch boxes to office workers. Tiffin is an old-fashioned English word for a light lunch, and sometimes for the box it is carried in. Dabbawalas are sometimes called tiffin-wallas.
Though the work sounds simple, it is actually a highly specialized trade that is over a century old and which has become integral to Mumbai's culture.
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 in the eyes of many Westerners, the success of the dabbawala trade has involved no Western modern high technology. The main reason for their popularity could be the Indian people's aversion to Western style fast food outlets and their love of home-made food.
Dabbawala in actionAlthough the service remains essentially low-tech, The success of the system depends on teamwork and time management that would be the envy of a modern manager. Such is the dedication and commitment of the barely literate and barefoot delivery men who form links in the extensive delivery, that there is no system of documentation at all. A simple colour coding system doubles as an ID system for the destination and recipient. There are no multiple elaborate layers of management either — just three layers.
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 inside the boxes. However, this was usually before the accessibility of instant telecommunications.
The word "Dabbawala" can be translated as "box-carrier" or "lunchpail-man". In Marathi and Hindi, "dabba" means a box (usually a cylindrical aluminium container), while "wala" means someone in a trade involving the object mentioned in the preceding term, e.g. punkhawala with "pankha" which means a fan and "wala" mean the person who owns the pankha (The one with the fan).