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Dabbawallah

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SIGMA AND DABBAWALLAH
Delivering The Goods : Forbes rates the lunch-box carriers of Mumbai on a par with Motorola

FOOD EXPRESS: The dabbawallahs ferry 1.5 lakh lunches daily with the help of simple codes.

It was an unusual story by Forbes Global, A marked departure from its sought-after macro-economic reviews and corporate analyses. The US-based business magazine recently zeroed in on Mumbai's dabbawallah.The lunch> logisticians who deliver 1.5 lakh lunch boxes to hungry office goers every day have in the past found mention in the Indian press, but the Forbes story was the first time an international organization had analyzed them scientifically and rated them as if they comprised a corporate body. And the conclusions were more than flattering.

The dabbawallahs scored a 6 Sigma performance rating, a term used in quality assurance if the percentage of correctness is 99.999999 or more. In simple words, this means one error in six million transactions,a benchmark reserved for blue-chip companies like Motorola. For the humble dabbawallah, it was a treasured feather in his Gandhi cap. But the ground realities for him will not change.

His story begins every sultry Mumbai morning at 9 a.m. sharp. The doorbell rings at the Bhalekar residence in Dahisar, a far-flung suburb, in a ritual that is being played out simultaneously in thousands of Mumbai homes. Vrinda Bhalekar hands over an aluminum container with piping hot lunch for her husband to a middle-aged man wearing the regulation white cap.In an hour's time, the man will have collected 30 such dabbas (lunch boxes) to pass on to a waiting colleague at the local railway station.

It's not easy covering so many houses quickly in a city like Mumbai. The heat and the crawling peak-hour traffic make reaching a home a task in itself. At each stop the dabbawallah has to park his cycle at the gate, go to the client's flat which invariably means an elevator ride up a high-rise, collect the lunch and then come down again. But it is a part of the daily grind. Just as it is for his colleague who sweats it out in the crowded local train to reach, say, south Mumbai's Churchgate terminus by 11.30 a.m. There groups of team members effortlessly sort out the tiffin's-thousands of them in less than 10 minutes-while others pack their carts with the boxes and dash off to the office districts.

By noon, Bhalekar and thousands like him have warm food in front of them. The entire process is reversed after the meal and Bhalekar's dabba reaches home well before he does. Behind this reliable-as-clockwork system is a relay of 4,500 hardworking dabbawallahs and a simple but effective coding system. The residential address, office address, railway stations of delivery and pick up are all crunched into a small series of letters and numbers,hand-painted on each client's tiffin. For instance, Bhalekar's lunch would carry the coding 3MC4, 3 for the carrier who delivers in Nariman Point, MC for his office in Mafatlal Centre and 4 for the floor his office is located on.

In another code below it, 10 is the number for the Churchgate station where the tiffin is offloaded and D for Dahisar station where it was collected. So advanced, and so loved by the people, is the service that you can order it from online grocery store webrishi.com. Despite such facilities and efficiency-a level which Forbes noted "western businesses can only aspire to"-the service comes at an amazingly cheap fee of Rs 150 a month, the price determined somewhat by the recession in the business. From its peak days in 1955 with deliveries of over two lakh tiffins per day, the century-old trade received its first blow when bank employees began leaving home early with the change in office timings in the late 1960s. The rapid closure of mills in the 1980s-'90s also robbed the dabbawallah of his largest clientele, the mill workers. Now, canteens and food courts in the office districts have taken their toll.

The money collected by the dabbawallah goes into the cooperative pool that he belongs to. Out of the accumulated fund, he is paid a monthly salary of Rs 3,000 or so. But no one is complaining. Raghunath Medge, president of the Nutan Mumbai Tiffin box Suppliers' Charity Trust, is undeterred. To him,all that matters is his ability to deliver. "We make a mistake perhaps once in two months. Our livelihood depends on delivering efficiently" he says. Competition for Federal Express?…...

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