E is for efficiency

Yes, efficiency. India is often associated with inefficiency. From the traffic that delays you for hours to the mind-boggling bureaucracy that makes you laugh and cry (sometimes simultaneously), India’s inefficiencies are many. And, yet, Indians have an incredible capacity to be  efficient when they want or need to be.

In Mumbai, such efficiency is epitomized in one word: dabbawala. A dabba is a lunchbox. Wala (or walla or wallah) means “person.” We have chaiwallahs who sell tea, paperwalas who deliver newspapers, and many other kinds of walas. A dabbawala is a person who delivers a lunchbox (sometimes called a tiffin).

Tiffins outside Churchgate station in Mumbai, India

Tiffins gathered on the sidewalk outside Churchgate station. The lettering on top represents the dabbawala shorthand for the addresses for pickup, delivery, and return.

Mumbai’s dabbawalas deliver between 1,50,000 and 2,00,000 dabbas every day. They’re on time, every time. More efficient than the US post office, the dabbawalas have delivered tiffins during harsh monsoon rains and terror attacks. The Dabbawala union is a six-sigma certified organization of about 5,000 workers, most of whom are illiterate. They have an on-time delivery rate of better than 99%. Harvard Business School has studied their organizational culture, and Prince Charles has visited them.

Today, I saw how they sort their tiffins and ready them for delivery outside Churchgate station.

Dabbawala sorting tiffins outside Churchgate station in Mumbai, India

A dabbawala sorting and checking his tiffins. From here, they will be placed on a bicycle and delivered throughout South Bombay.

A key factor in the dabbawala success story is that each dabbawala is responsible for about 30 tiffins a day. Each dabbawala does his part to ensure on-time delivery.

Dabbawala ready to deliver his tiffins

This dabbawala is about to deliver his tiffins. After delivery is complete, he will eat lunch, and then return to the delivery locations to collect the tiffins. Then, the tiffins will make the return journey home to the tiffin owner.

After watching the dabbawalas, we ate at Leopold Cafe, where I asked the question:

If the dabbawalas can be so efficient, why can’t the rest of India be efficient, too?

I’d love to hear your answers to this question, so post a comment, please.

To learn more about dabbawalas, you can visit the Dabbawala Foundation website:


4 thoughts on “E is for efficiency

  1. Pingback: In the shadow of the Shiv Sena Bhavan: A Finely Chopped food walk | Magnolia2Mumbai!

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