But ask yourself: how many of the world’s courier companies or international distribution firms make less than one mistake in every eight million deliveries?
Well much of the world would probably be surprised to know that the grandly-named Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Trust does, according to a recent survey. And, most of its members are illiterate!
They are more commonly known as dabbawallas and visitors to Mumbai can spot them mid-morning every working day streaming from Churchgate and other major railway stations with huge wooden crates of dabbas (lunch or “tiffin” boxes) on their heads, which continue their journey on overloaded hand carts pushed and pulled by more dabbawallas. The dabbas reach their final destination of office workers’ desks in downtown Mumbai, adding to the chaos of Mumbai’s street traffic in the process.
A dabbawalla in Marathi – the language of Mumbai’s Maharashtra state –literally means a “person with a box”. The dabbawallas themselves are instantly recognisable in their white cotton kurtas and their trade mark Gandhi caps. They are an integral and unique feature of Mumbai’s city culture.
The dabbawalla system can be traced back to the growth of Mumbai’s textile industry in the 19th century, a boom that brought skilled workers and traders in their thousands to the city. The spread of housing developments, thanks to the fast growing railway system, were well beyond walking distance from the mills. There were no staff canteens and restaurants in those days, so how was a hungry worker to get his lunch?
In the 1880s, an enterprising errand boy collecting his boss’ lunch saw the answer and an opportunity and brought friends and family from Pune – 50 miles or so from Mumbai – to develop a dabba (lunch box) delivery service. Thus was borne the dabbawalla workforce. Later in 1956, the workforce was formed into a charitable trust carrying the name of The Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Trust with each worker becoming a member.
Today there are some 5,000 dabbawalla members of the trust engaged in the delivery (and return) of some 200,000 dabbas every working day. Each dabbawalla earns around Rs 5,000 (£70) per month. Nowadays, although Indian office workers are still the main customers for the dabbawallas, increasingly affluent families are using them instead for lunch delivery to their schoolchildren and major corporations such as Microsoft have used them for a spot of direct marketing!
The service is clearly time critical. A typical day’s scheduling starts with dabbas collected usually by bicycle from home or from the dabba makers, then put on trains and sorted, often two or three times, at intermediary stations before arriving at the main Mumbai railways stations where they are once more sorted and loaded onto handcarts and bicycles for delivery to the right desks. Following lunch the system goes into reverse with empty dabbas being returned to homes by early evening.
But how does a largely illiterate workforce service such an extensive delivery system; and that too without any documentation?
A simple colour-coding system identifies the location of the sender and recipient and the residential and destination railway stations. It couldn’t be simpler. And nor could the organisation which is made up of just three layers: an executive committee of five, each managing teams of 20-25 dabbawallas headed by a team leader and with each dabbawalla having a daily workload on average of 30 dabbas.
Each dabbawalla is required to contribute a minimum capital in kind: two bicycles, a wooden crate for the dabbas and white cotton kurta uniform with the trade mark white Gandhi cap.
And all this with a failure rate of less than one in every eight million deliveries, which if I’ve got my maths right is one dabba out of 200,000 every day going astray every 20 days!
Not bad for a city groaning under its dreadful infrastructure. And come to think of it, not bad at all for a delivery service anywhere in today’s world.
Julian Stretch OBE has 35 years experience in setting up and assisting businesses in India and other parts of the world. He provides strategic advice to foreign companies entering the Indian market and has briefed numerous FT 100 companies on doing business in India. He is chairman of the India Briefing Centre.