-Jai kumar A

Mumbai’s iconic dabbawallas, known for their efficient lunch delivery, face disruption from digital food platforms. Their future hinges on the delicate balance between tradition and adapting to survive in a rapidly changing market.

Maya, a Mumbai marketing executive who loves home food, always has a whirlwind of a day – like most professionals in the city! She lives in Ghatkopar with her mom, Lakshmi, but works in the Fort area of Mumbai. Lakshmi’s mornings are bustling. She is a diabetic and a fabulous cook. However, to care for her frail health, she goes for long walks and spends time with friends in the mornings.

Once Maya leaves for work at 7 am, Lakshmi makes a delicious lunch for her daughter, packing it in her “dabba,” a cylindrical container. Around 9 am, a gentleman sporting a white Gandhi cap arrives, ready to whisk the dabba off to Maya. Lakshmi, who is rather attached to her vessels, trusts the gentleman enough to part with her dabba because she knows the same gentleman will return it to her by that evening.

Rewind a few years and imagine a world in which platform-based food delivery services did not exist. Even then, eating home-cooked meals at work for most professionals in Mumbai who yearned for them was not as difficult as, say, for a professional in a different city in India because of the existence of the dabbawalla system. The dabbawalla system is yet another example of a practical innovation idiosyncratic to Mumbai that has stood the test of time. For those unfamiliar with it, it is a unique food delivery service that began in the late 19th century and is now an integral part of Mumbai’s heritage.

Initiated in 1890 by Mahadeo Havaji Bachche, during the British rule when Mumbai’s (then Bombay) railway systems were not as well developed, he saw a business opportunity of delivering home-cooked meals to offi cegoers in Mumbai. The absence of an organized transportation system in Bombay implied that professionals and bureaucrats who used to work in the city had to endure long commutes from their offi ces just for their afternoon lunch. This resulted in loss of productivity and, for some, even longer working hours. Because dabbawallas delivered lunches from homes packed in “dabbas” or lunch boxes from the homes of these professionals to their respective offices, the dabbawalla system was not only a boon to the office goers but even their employers who witnessed greater productivity of their employees. Like most modern entrepreneurial startups, dabbawallas started small with just 100 dabbawallas delivering food to their customers in Bombay. Soon, the value they offered their customers enabled them to scale rapidly. Today, the dabbawalla system employs about 5,000 dabbawallas, mostly from small villages near Pune with a common cultural background, delivering approximately 200,000 “dabbas” daily.

The heart of the innovation of the dabbawalla system lies in its unique logistics. The delivery cycle starts with a dabbawalla collecting dabbas from the source, collecting and carrying them in baskets, on their heads, and sometimes on bicycles. They are then handed over to others in their network to be transported by trains, sometimes for over 40-50 km to their respective destinations. At the destination train station, another dabbawalla collects them and delivers the dabbas to their respective destination. After lunch, empty dabbas are collected from the clients and returned to their homes like they were brought to the offices. All for just Rs 1,000 -  Rs 1,200 to the customer!

Like an old, bustling forest where giant trees have stood for ages, blocking out sunlight and preventing new growth, established businesses bound by outdated routines often find themselves stuck in their ways. However, when new businesses disrupt the landscape like wildfire, they may clear away the old guards. This process, while destructive, allows fresh ideas to take root and ultimately creates more value for customers. The entry of platform-driven food delivery services, with a wide variety of food options and the convenience of online ordering, started as a tiny spark but proliferated like wildfire around 2018, introducing turbulence to the dabbawalla system.

The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated this challenge for the dabbawala system. Lockdowns and the rise of a “work from home” culture posed signifi cant challenges to the dabbawalla logistics model. This forced many dabbawalas to return to their villages and some to seek alternative employment to make ends meet. In response, the dabbawalas took a crack at going digital by launching their website, digitaldabbawala.com, where customers can place orders and make payments online. They have also expanded their services to include partnerships with local restaurants and the launch of cloud kitchens, allowing them to offer a broader range of food options.

Despite these challenges, the core of the dabbawalla system continues to revolve around their traditional service. They continue to rely on their sense of community and shared purpose among the dabbawallas as a key factor in attracting dabbawallas to their system. They also continue to depend on the dabbawalla service for their revenues. However, as Mumbai continues to evolve, the dabbawalas face the unenviable task of adapting to the changing landscape while preserving the essence of their service that allowed them to survive for over a hundred years. The future of the dabbawala system will depend on their ability to balance tradition with innovation, ensuring that they remain a beloved and vital part of Mumbai’s daily life.

In sum, the dabbawala system is more than just a food delivery service; it symbolises Mumbai’s spirit of community and efficiency. As the city and its inhabitants navigate the challenges of the modern world, the dabbawalas stand as a testament to the enduring power of human connection and ingenuity. But the million-dollar question is whether that will continue for another hundred years.

Rewind a few years and imagine a world in which platform-based food delivery services did not exist...


Jai Kumar A

Jai Kumar A

Senior Manager, Research Initiatives & Projects, SRITNE, ISB