The Lunch Box Men

by Uzra Khan:

With a twinkle in his eye and his traditional white Nehru hat placed jauntily on his head, Gangaram Tarekar, secretary of the Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Association (NMTBSA), arrived at his destination in Mumbai and, true to his profession, was right on time. The NMTBSA, popularly known as the dabbawalas, delivers boxes of steaming, home-cooked food to 200,000 Mumbai office-goers everyday. For the equivalent of seven to nine U.S. dollars a month, this lunch-delivery service even includes returning the empty boxes to each subscriber’s house. The dabbawalas keep the city fed, pumping food through its veins of public transport. Even during the horrific Mumbai monsoon season, the dabbawalas manage to find a way through floods and train delays to deliver lunch.

“Dabba” means “lunch box” in Hindi, and “wala” means “man.” These 5,000 “lunch box men” started their business over a hundred years ago when India was still under British rule. Indian office-goers preferred home-cooked meals to the foreign food provided by their British employers. Today, the dabbawalas are a force to be reckoned with. Their trademark: they make no mistakes. Their error rate is one in 16 million, and in 2001, Forbes Global magazine gave them a rating of Six Sigma, or 99.999 percent accuracy.

The illiterate dabbawallas use their own codes to distinguish each of the 20,000 lunch boxes they handle daily. (Courtesy Meena Kadri/Flickr)

Over the years the dabbawalas have evolved from a small group of business partners to a large organization, managed by an administrative trust under the command of an elected president and secretary. Yet they retain the characteristics of a brotherhood. They all belong to the same caste – the Malvas – and dress in the same white garb and white Nehru hats. As Tarekar said in rapid Hindi, “We only take newdabbawalas from our own people. Forty percent of dabbawalas got into the profession because their father was in it before, and there is a rigorous 6-month training process for each new dabbawala, and it is in this time that we decide if we like him.”

How do the dabbawalas perpetually avoid mistakes? It’s easy to imagine reams of addresses and names, a secret computer database somewhere in Mumbai updated regularly to accommodate their growing clientele. But most dabbawalas are illiterate. Their method is shockingly simple: “We work on memory. If you subscribe to us today, one of our brothers will come to your house tomorrow to memorize its location, and go to your office to do the same. The day after tomorrow he will come to collect your dabba,” said Tarekar proudly. Apart from this amazing absence of error, the dabbawalas pride themselves on almost never going on strike. “Error is horror. Strike is suicide,” Tarekar said in broken English. “A strike has disastrous results; our brothers in the offices don’t get the lunch that their wives, mothers, and daughters have prepared for them with so much care.”

The dabbawalas’ remarkable drive has been recognized internationally by the likes of Prince Charles, Richard Branson, and Bill Clinton, all of whom have traveled to India to meet them. Tarekar, in fact, was one of the guests at Prince Charles’ wedding to Camilla Parker Bowles. “We really liked Prince Charles, he was always so punctual when he met us,” said Tarekar, smiling.

In keeping with changing times, the dabbawalas now have their own website and offer subscriptions by text message. Even more striking is the little effort they put into advertising: they rely solely on word-of-mouth. Mumbai’s dabbawalas have no plans to expand to other cities in India. As Tarekar put it, “Mumbai is perfect for us. It is a long and narrow city, and it has an excellent train system. We wouldn’t be able to function elsewhere. Only in Mumbai can you find such a variety of people with such a variety of home-cooked food.” He is unfazed about what the future holds: “The future? We’ll work, we’ll eat, and we’ll enjoy ourselves! The moon won’t change, the sun won’t change, the sky won’t change. People will change, but their hunger for a home-cooked meal will not. And as long as that doesn’t change, we will not either.”

With a chuckle, a namaste, and a bow of his Nehru hat, Mr. Gangaram Tarekar is off – he can’t be late for his next appointment.

Uzra Khan ’12 is a Psychology and International Studies major in Trumbull College. Contact her at