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A lesson from Mumbai’s Dabbawalas

FICCI Ladies Organisation held its first meet for 2012-13 in a novel way recently — an interaction with two members of the Mumbai Dabbawala Association, which was formed in 1890. With a six-sigma rating and an error rate of one in 16 million, association president Raghunath Medge and general secretary Gangaram Talekar had quite a story to tell.

Modus operandi: Their day begins at 7am, as they set out from the suburbs to reach their workplace. By 9-9.30am they start collecting tiffin boxes from the households. Each person collects about 40 lunch boxes. About 20 people make up a group who meet at a given station for sorting. They board the trains to their respective destinations. At the station, another group sorts them again and starts the delivery. The dabbawalas cover nearly 70 stations across the three railway lines (central, western and harbour).

After lunch, the group that makes the delivery also collects the empty tiffin boxes and brings them back to the station for sorting. Each group then takes back the dabbas according to the area assigned to them and the process is repeated in reverse.

The secret behind their efficiency: “Four of those six sigmas are actually due somewhere else — two to the Mumbai trains and two to our cycles,” said Medge. The Mumbai trains form a vital part of their supply chain. The train strikes in 1974 were the only time when they weren’t able to deliver the dabbas. No, not even when all of Mumbai was standing still on July 26, during the 2005 floods, did the dabbawalas slow down.

And why cycles? “Cycles help us get to the stations quickly and since you don’t need a licence to ride a bicycle, no one stops us when we flout signals or ride over footpaths to make it for the 10.30am local,” he added.

No strikes since 1890: Each dabbawala is a shareholder and a member of the association. “This ensures a commitment to work. Everyone has seen thousands of families suffer due to the mill strikes. So one does not believe in strikes any more. For the dabbawalas, work is worship and duty is God,” said Talekar. Now you know why there is no Calcutta counterpart?

Vital statistics

Number of people employed: 5,000
Average level of education: 8th standard
Coverage area: 60-70 km
Number of tiffin boxes: 2,00,000
Number of transactions per day: 4,00,000
Delivery time: 9am to noon
Monthly charges: Rs 500
Salary drawn: Rs 8,000-9,000 a month

Did you know?

The dabbawalas can be fined up to Rs 1,000 for not wearing their cap or for being absent without notice.

Overheard

Would they be able to repeat the same model in Calcutta, asked an audience member. “No. Calcuttans might just call a strike on Day One of their working!” quipped another.