The intricate organizing system of Mumbai's "Dabba-wallahs"

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" Dabba-wallah" is a Hindi/Marathi word that literally translates to "box-person". This article posted in the New York Times in the year 2007,  is about one of Mumbai's oldest professions, that of delivering tiffin boxes containing one's own home cooked food to one's workplace. To someone hearing about it for the first time, it may sound inane, but in a city like Mumbai with a growing population of 13 million (as per census in 2009), delivering lunch boxes across the city needs precision, efficiency, good time management and a whole lot of organizing.

In a place where people prefer eating home cooked food for lunch to eating out, these dabbawallahs have proved to be a blessing in disguise. Because of time consuming commute in Mumbai, people leave for work early in the morning before their food gets ready. The dabbawallahs collect the food from the homes of Mumbai-kers every morning, place it in their own coded containers and deliver it to the respective offices. About 200000 lunch boxes are delivered by 5000 dabbawallahs everyday. The containers are collected from every area and sorted according to the color-number code assigned to each destination area. 

The system follows the local train schedules for delivery so managing time is of utmost importance. Also, because of the varied choice of cuisines of the people, even one wrong delivery of the lunch box could create problems. However, the organizing principle of using colors and codes for every area is so robust that the degree of correctness is 99.99% which means only one in 200000 lunch boxes delivered goes astray.  With so much precision in the organizing system, it is hardly a wonder that Forbes awarded a 6-sigma performance rating to the dabba-wallahs, a rating shared by companies like General Electric and Motorola. The system  which is in effect from 1890 is similar to that of Fed-ex except that it is completely paperless and every phase of the system is handled manually.

Below are some of the pictures of the sorting and delivery mechanisms of the humble dabba-wallah.