The phone rings in a one-room office in Navyug Mansion, located in the Grant Road area of south Bombay. Forty-nine-year-old Shivaji Sakaram Sawant, who has been delivering dabbas for the past 20 years, picks up the receiver. The caller is a customer concerned that her tiffin box had not been returned to her home the previous day. After a few questions, it turns out that Sawant knows not only the road on which her apartment complex is located, but also the number of her flat and the office where the tiffin is delivered every day. He assures her that the missing tiffin will be located and returned to her house by evening, along with the day’s dabba. Perhaps it is the confident way in which Sawant speaks, or the fact that he knows the trajectory of an otherwise inconspicuous dabba, but the customer at the other end is clearly relieved. The parting tone is gracious and affable. Sawant then joins his colleagues, who have now arrived at the office – a pit-stop for dabbawallas delivering tiffins in this area – and starts having his lunch.
Sawant’s deft handling of a customer in distress reflects why Bombay’s century-old faith in its famed dabbawalla network has never been misplaced. It also explains why corporate India, which in the past has limited itself to picking up management tips from the dabbawallas’ flawless delivery system and notable teamwork, is today moving to tap their extensive client base in order to advertise and sell their products.
About 5000 dabbawallas, each of whom deals with 35 to 40 customers, collectively deliver around two lakh tiffin boxes across Bombay every day. First, they collect tiffins cooked at the homes of customers or by caterers. Then, using a relay system – each dabba changes hands three or four times in the course of its journey – the dabbawallas deliver the lunchboxes to clients at their offices. After lunch, they pick up the tiffin boxes and return these to the customers’ homes by evening, perhaps even before the clients themselves reach their living rooms. To identify dabbas and their destinations, the dabbawallas, many of whom are unschooled, employ a unique system of numbers and letters marked on the dabbas. These often baffle onlookers, but the dabbawallas insist that the system is simple and easily deciphered.
The tiffin carriers are so efficient that they have in recent years become something of an international phenomenon. Nearly a decade ago, the dabbawallas of Bombay earned a so-called Six Sigma certification from the US-based Forbes magazine, meaning that they had achieved an astounding accuracy rate of 99.999999 percent in their deliveries. They have been visited and feted by dignitaries such as the flamboyant magnate Richard Branson and Prince Charles, who also invited some dabbawallas to attend his wedding with Camilla Parker Bowles in December 2005. The tiffin carriers are regularly asked to deliver presentations across the world, including in many of India’s top management institutes. The men in white caps and white kurtas or shirts – the instantly recognisable dabbawalla uniform – have also been the subject of several flattering reports in the national and international media. An article published in the Financial Times in May 2007 said that neither “the rickety state of Mumbai’s infrastructure” nor the “catastrophic” monsoon rains “fazes the dabbawallas”. Considering this celebrity status, it was just a matter of time before India’s corporates started eyeing dabbas as a platform for product placement.
Raghunath Medge, president of the Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Association, says it was after Prince Charles visited India in 2003 that companies began expressing an interest in the dabbawalla network, “though we have been doing this work since 1890.” Medge’s granduncle was one of the association’s founding members, and his family has been in the profession for three generations.
With the uptick in interest, it should come as no surprise that these days, tiffins in Bombay have started arriving accompanied by items as diverse as forms for upcoming initial public offerings (IPOs) and bottles of newly launched soft drinks. Stickers on tiffins advertise everything from toothpaste to the latest television soap opera, and the dabbawallas’ clothes now serve as billboards, advertising both commercial and socially conscious announcements. For instance, for the past three years on World AIDS Day (1 December), the Maharashtra government has used the dabbawalla network to generate awareness about HIV and AIDS.
Manish Tripathi, who handles queries for the association, says the dabbawallas reach every corner of Bombay, and that it therefore makes good business sense for companies to take advantage of their network. Some of the more high-profile projects in which the dabbawallas have recently been involved include generating publicity for Microsoft’s Vista software, Airtel’s pre-paid mobile-phone cards, the television channel ZEE Next, the Internet-service provider Sify and Colgate toothpaste. They have also delivered IPO forms for Reliance Power and the real-estate company Emaar MGF, as well as brochures for banks.
This work has picked up momentum over the past two years. Tripathi says the association receives about two enquiries from corporations every month, and “a tie-up usually materialises once in two months”. One such agreement was with Corporation Bank, in May 2007. The bank asked the dabbawallas to deliver a folder that included material about the bank’s services, as well as forms for opening savings accounts. The dabbawallas were expected to return completed forms to the bank, says N N Pal, a general manager with the bank.
Pal does not want to talk about money matters, but he will say that each dabbawalla had an incentive to return a filled-out form. While the customer response was not as enthusiastic as had been hoped – a fact that Pal shrugs off by saying that most people in Bombay already have bank accounts – Corporation Bank does plan to continue its association with dabbawallas. “This is an ongoing process, so that there’s recall value,” says Pal. “And it’s cheaper than advertising in the electronic media.” Corporation Bank, in the meantime, has opened savings accounts for about a 1000 dabbawallas. “Most of them didn’t have bank accounts, so we stepped in,” Pal says.
Prasanna Meduri, director of Microsoft India’s Windows Client Business Group, says that when Windows Vista was launched, the company used a number of approaches to “capture the customer’s attention”, including the dabbawalla network. “Microsoft believed this to be an effective and innovative way to reach customers at their workspaces,” says Meduri. “The campaign’s main aim was to spread awareness about the benefits of genuine Windows software, and to encourage product purchase.” For this, he says, Microsoft partnered with Zenith Computers and launched a marketing campaign that offered special prices on Zenith PCs preloaded with original Windows operating systems, among other things. Microsoft also asked each dabbawalla to wear a Windows Vista t-shirt and cap while doing his rounds. The campaign, conducted for a week in February 2007, generated more than 12,000 queries.
Tripathi says that part of the money raised from corporate engagements goes to the charitable arm of the dabbawalla association, while the individual dabbawallas also earn commissions for their work. Microsoft, for instance, gave the dabbawallas INR 100 for every PC sold. For a dabbawalla who generally earns on average INR 5000-6000 every month, this extra income is welcome. But the tie-ups with corporations have the potential to help dabbawallas in the long-term as well.
The tiffin comes first
Commercial inroads into the dabba business notwithstanding, most dabbawallas consider the corporate work as little more than an occasional side-business. At a small restaurant in Andheri, a Bombay suburb, association president Raghunath Medge emphasises customer satisfaction when asked about corporate tie-ups. “We have to deliver the tiffins at lunchtime; that’s our job,” he says, sipping tea. “What’s the point if the food is delivered at 2 pm instead of noon?”
The obligation to punctually deliver each customer’s lunch is ingrained in every single dabbawalla, and Medge says the requirements of corporate advertising work is not likely to overwhelm the day-to-day responsibilities anytime soon. “This advertisement work is usually for two or three days,” he says. “We don’t have a team to look at queries from companies. It’s not our business at all. If we start concentrating on tie-ups, then our timings might go awry and our customers won’t like it.” He adds, “So far no one has complained. We explain to the clients that we get additional income if we distribute a pamphlet or leaflet, and they usually understand. And it’s not as if the customer is being forced to buy something.”
Outside Grant Road Station, where the tiffin boxes are being sorted onto carts and bicycles for delivery, 50-year-old dabbawalla Kishan Shankar Sarkure says that if corporate arrangements somehow affected their timings, dabbawallas would refuse any and all enticements. Nearby, 26-year-old Ankush Medge, who has been a dabbawalla for nine years, nods his head in agreement. He says that it is good that the dabbawalla association is able to make a little profit from the tie-ups with corporations. “But,” he adds, “we ensure that the tiffin reaches first.”
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
flickr / The US Army
On 1 December 2013, Afghan President Hamid Karzai accused the US of cutting fuel supplies to Afghan security forces. Despite US pressure, Karzai continues to stall the signing of a Bilateral Security Agreement.
From our archive:
Subel Bhandari looks at the Strategic Partnership Agreement, noting its avoidance of contentious issues. (April 2012)
Vijay Prashad reviews Syed Saleem Shahzad’s Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11, discussing Taliban strategy in the context of NATO withdrawal. (October 2011)
Aunohita Mojumdar explores questions of accountability in relation to the West’s “hasty exit strategy”. (February 2011)