Mumbai Dabbawalas fed lakhs, but now struggle for their own meals
Dabbawalas, whose on-time home meal delivery system has fed Mumbai for 125 years, are now struggling to put together their own meals during the lockdown. Without any earning in the past three months, they have burned through their savings. The workforce of 5,000 men has for long epitomised the spirit of Mumbai—the city that gets…
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Dabbawalas, whose on-time home meal delivery system has fed Mumbai for 125 years, are now struggling to put together their own meals during the lockdown. Without any earning in the past three months, they have burned through their savings.
The workforce of 5,000 men has for long epitomised the spirit of Mumbai—the city that gets back to the grind like clockwork, come rain, shine or calamity, and which rewards punctuality—and is regarded as one of the most efficient logistics systems in the world.
But the Covid-19 pandemic may have eviscerated that spirit.
Although Mumbai is slowly opening up under Mission Begin Again and private offices will resume work on Monday with maximum 10 per cent strength, the dabbawalas are not holding out much hope in the absence of local train services. The state government has still not offered a timeline on when local trains will begin operations. Prior to the lockdown, the dabbawalas made deliveries to around 2 lakh customers a day.
Many are also worried that offices that reopen might still be reluctant to allow entry to ‘outsiders’ during the pandemic. Ramdas Karvande, president of the Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers, says customers had assured them that orders will be placed once offices reopen. “But that is a long shot. We got small donations of Rs 200-500. People are looking for work, but local factories are not taking new workers. I am waiting it (the lockdown) out. When the service starts, I have to be in Mumbai,” says Karvande, who has moved to his village in Maval taluka of Pune.
Many of them are now hunting for new jobs, which that are hard to come by Covid-19 alone hasn’t thrown their lives in disarray. A majority of dabbawalas who hail from western Maharashtra and had gone to their villages before the lockdown suffered another crushing blow when cyclone Nisarga ravaged their homes and fields last week. Ulhas Muke of Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust says many of his peers are living without electricity or mobile connectivity.
The dabbawalas have been sustaining on state rations and help from independent contributors. Smita Thackeray’s Mukkti Foundation has been able to help out in the form of food supplies and financial support. “Their suffering is so widespread that efforts are not enough. I appealed to my friends and acquaintances to help. Some are sending contributions directly,” says Thackeray.
The dabbawalas have been the subject of several studies, including the Harvard School of Business in 2010—which had graded it a ‘Six Sigma’, meaning they make fewer than 3.4 mistakes per 10 lakh deliveries—and have taught efficiency to delivery giants like Amazon and FedEx as well as British businessmen Richard Branson. They have even fostered close ties in the British royal family since wowing Prince Charles during his visit to Mumbai in 2003. That visited culminated in an invitation to two office-bearers of a dabbawalas’ organisation to the wedding of the prince with Camilla Parker-Bowles in April 2005.
HOUSE DESTROYED, LEG WOUNDED
Vishal Khape, 28
Kalhat village, Maval taluka, Pune
Khape delivered dabbas in Malad for six years. He returned to the village, where he stays with his parents, wife and brother, before the lockdown came into force. The village has had no power supply since the cyclone.
The cyclone ripped through Khape’s house stripping its roof, soaking the grain stocks and the fodder kept for the cattle, and flooding the fields. He has 1.5 acres of land for rice cultivation.
“I have lost the roof over my head. Everything is gone,” he says, a tremble clear in his voice.
While he was trying to hold down the roof during the cyclone, a part of the asbestos sheet fell and cut through his leg. He received seven stitches and has been advised rest for 15 days. “I can’t even keep my foot on the ground,” he says.
Khape and his family have temporarily taken shelter at a relative’s house.
ROOF, FOOD STOCK DAMAGED
Vitthal Muke, 30
Rajgurunagar, Khed taluka, Pune
Muke’s village hasn’t had electricity or access to mobile network since the cyclone. He has to step out of the area just to make a phone call. Nisarga damaged the family’s grain reserves of a year and the grassland for cattle.
Muke has delivered tiffins for the last 15 years. His wife Ashwini Muke, who worked as a domestic help, has also lost her work.
“We have suffered a setback of Rs 50,000. I am looking for work in a factory, so that at least some money will come in to sustain us. We have 1 acre of land for rice cultivation. My and I wife do the farm work. When we came to our village, we came prepared for only eight days of lockdown. It’s been two-and-a -half months and we are looking at a bleak future,” Muke said.
EMERGENCY SAVINGS GONE
Santosh Pawar, 40
Maval taluka, Pune
Pawar returned to his village on March 17. “The yield of rice from our 3 guntas of land is not enough. That’s why my brother and I worked as dabbawalas,” he says.
Pawar delivered tiffins to schools in Malad and Kandivali for 20 years. There is uncertainty over when school campuses will reopen.
For the first two months, the family of 10 received 5 kg of rice from by the state. Pawar’s mother, who recently suffered a heart attack, is on medication that costs Rs 3,000, and provisions worth Rs 4,000 are needed a month. Last week’s cyclone blew the roof off his house. “We have used up our emergency savings. When the dabba service stopped, we thought it’d last a month. Now we can’t think ahead,” says Pawar.
There is no work in his village. There are industrial units nearby, but since Maval is in the red zone, companies have not started operations yet.
CAN’T PULL ON ANY LONGER
Balshiram Gopale, 41
Gopale did not go to his village as his children’s school had online classes. He used to deliver dabbas in Andheri, Dadar, Grant Road, Bandra, Churchgate and Lower Parel.
“I got the rice distributed by the government and have used up my savings. I can’t go on like this any longer. I am looking for a janitor’s job or any odd job,” he says.
His wife, who worked as a domestic help, has also got no source of income.
Gopale has a small rice farm in his village in Pune and his brother looks after it.
His only solace is that his children’s education will not be affected as the fees are minimal.
WILLING TO TAKE UP ANY JOB
Ganesh Gaikwad, 36
Gaikwad has delivered meals to offices in Grant Road for years. His wife, Sonal Gaikwad, used to work at a salon. They stay in a transit camp with their children.
“The savings are gone. I am looking for a watchman or labourer’s job, whatever I can find. I have asked some neighbours who work as guards. Some people who work in automobile units said staff strength has been halved and there is no new recruitment. I never dreamed that the dabba business will see such a tough time,” says Gaikwad.
His brother, Jairam Gaikwad, also a dabbawala, is also hunting for a job.
Gaikwad feels office clients will not return soon, given the concerns over hygiene and risk of infection.