The Wonder of Tiffin-patiwala Network Management in Mumbai

Published on October 8, 2010   ·   1 Comment


Wherever you may be staying in Mumbai, in whichever corner you may be having your work-place in this metropolis of one crore plus population, you never ever fail to receive your home food in time at the lunch hour in your work-place!! Thanks to the network of the tiffin-patiwalas that has been functioning in an amazing way for the last 120 years and recognised as the best case of network management in the world even by the management gurus.

Home-food so lovingly cooked by the mother, sister or bhabhi at home with all care and love for the taste, hygiene and quality that the “Roti-earner” of the family has a right and privilege to savor to his full nourishment, reaches thousands of mill-workers, office-goers and executives on their tables in their work-place miles away in the most punctual and error-proof system. This is the consistent performance of the ‘Dibbawala’ or ‘Tiffinwala’, as they are affectionately called by all Mumbaikars.

Attired in the most typical dress composed of half sleeved open shirt, pyjama or pant, a ‘Gandhi cap’ covering the head, Kolhapuri Chappals in the feet, this Tiffinwala carries a wooden case on his head with 20 to 25 tiffins in it. If you see a man with a fast pace of walk, not affected by the dense traffic during the rush hours, do recognize him without fail as the Tiffinwala – the hunger-cracker of the working class Mumbaikar.

About 10 to 15 years ago, it was rather impossible to think about Mumbai sans the Dibbawala . The most prolific column-writer, who Mumbaikars lost forever just a few days ago, Behram ‘Busybee’ Contractor wrote some time in the past referring to these Dibbawalas as the lifeline of the service class or middle class Mumbaikars.

If you are a new entrant to Mumbai and if you try to board any local train during the rush hours between 9 AM and 11 AM in the morning towards South Mumbai and during 5 PM to 8 PM in the evening towards the suburbs, rest assured, you are likely to faint. Leave aside boarding the train, even seeing it may meet the same result. But, in this unparalleled density of traffic, this is the daily encounter for this stoutly built serious looking sober Dibbawala. Fortunately the railways have given a special reserved compartment to them next to the guard’s cabin on certain suburban trains. Don’t be surprised if you happen to peep into this compartment to see as many as 700 to 800 Tiffins!! Humans too.

The code
Thousands of tiffins reach their destinations through these “Mard Marathas”. A few years ago, when a BBC TV Channel made a documentary on this community of Dibbawalas, what amazed the journalists of BBC was the million dollar question “How do these mostly illiterate, simpletons – ‘Angootha-chhap’ as known in the local language – maintain such a perfect network to know the two end destinations for each triffin ?”

This puzzling quizzical picture has a very interesting system to render the solution in an analogous picture of the nomads of Saurashtra and Kutchh region of Gujarat in India. You will see these ‘Gowaals’ and ‘Bharwaads’ collectively taking hundreds of cattle to the grazeyards and passing the day playing musical tunes on the flute while the cattle graze. On their return in the evening, can you guess how each one recognizes his cattle from the collective mass? Simple. Each animal has an identifying mark of a typical colour on its back.

Some similar simple system exists with this Dibbawala Network. Every tiffin-carrier has the mark of a circle or a flower of a specific colour and a digital identity number. Take this Tiffin Mark for example-K-BO-10-19/A/15. K is the identity letter of the dibbawala. BO means Borivali i.e. the area from where the tiffin is to be collected.. The figure of 10 refers to Nariman point area. 19/A/15 refers to the 19th Building and the 15th floor in Nariman point area where the tiffin is to be delivered. Amazing. Isn’t it? Especially when you think of such a system operated by angootha-chhaps?

The Modus Operandi
One set of tiffinwallas collect the tiffins from the homes and takes them to the local train stations like Borivali or Kandivali and loads them in the specified local train. Another set unload them at the stations like Andheri, Dadar, or Churchgate. Then there is a third set of carriers waiting at the respective stations who sort out and assemble their respective sets of tiffins and each carrier sets out for the delivery. These carriers once again visit the work-places in the afternoon to collect the empty tiffins and deliver them to the stations where the trainwise sorting and loading on the respective trains takes place. The local carriers at stations like Kandivali or Borivali collect them, sort them out and proceed to deliver the empty tiffins back to the residences.

You can witness this military discipline in all the members of the network, irrespective of the scorching hit of the summer or drenching rains of monsoon. Total error-proof perfectionism in the total process round the year!

Mr. Sopan More, President of the Tiffin Box suppliers Association, Mumbai proudly explains this 100% perfect disciplined performance with a glint in his eyes. He says, “Sir, we are the descendants of the soldiers of the great Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, the founder of the Maratha empire. We belong to Mavla (Area near Pune covering places like Rajgurunagar, Akola, Ambegaon, Junnar, Maoshi). Our ancestors used to climb up the fort hills of 500 or 600 feet height in a single breath on a single command from Chhatrapati during the warfare of his times. But, sir, we are the victims of the times. Today, we the descendants of such great warriors run around with the load of 25-30 Tiffins on our heads. Our elders used to carry swords in the name of Shivaji. Today, we carry food for others on our heads with perspiration running down our bodies to earn food for our families.”

These Mavlas have maintained their undisturbed monopoly in this profession. Very interestingly, this is the oldest service system in Mumbai for the basic necessity of life i.e. food. It is reported to have started somewhere in 1880-85 when the total population of Mumbai was less than ten lacs against 1.20 crores of today. Leave aside the local railway, even the buses of B.E.S.T. did not exist then. 40% of the population was Parsi. The Tiffins during those days were served on bicycles, hand-cart, bullock-cart or tanga (horse-driven carriage). Service charge at that time was two annas (twelve paisa as per the current currency) against Rs.200/- per Tiffin today.

The women
Working shoulder to shoulder with the men are the female folk, affectionately called “Moushi”. If women can work as engine-drivers, taxi-drivers, truck-drivers or a mechanic in motor-garage, or as senior executives in the corporate world, what can stop her in this profession of Dibbawala? Although only 2 compared the male population of 4000, they are there for certain. They are the the strong helping hand to the families in the hard days. Mrs. Bhikhubai Adav of Rajendranagar in Borivali(East) has done this for last 20 years. She wakes up in the dark hours at four in the morning, cooks for a family of five, leaves home by 7AM, collects tiffins, joins her husband to board the local train and goes to the other end of this metropolis i.e. Nariman Point and delivers the tiffins! She also tends to her domestic work after returning home in the evening. With such a hard life for twenty years, she feels pride to own her own house.

The other member of this small group is Anandibai. Her husband left Mumbai and went to his country-town succumbing to the hardships of Metropolis. Anandibai took over the work and responsibility left behind by her husband and physically carries about 15 to 20 tiffins! Salutes to these two great ladies.

Dwindling prospects
Most unfortunately, this mass of 4000 dedicated workers has been severely negatively affected by the fast food corners mushrooming up near all office areas, serving hot and economic food. Another blow came from closing down of so many textile mills. To add to this, to make both ends meet, the ladies in at least one family out of two or three took up some job either in the same office of the husband or nearby, carrying tiffin for both and enjoying lunch together.

Still, these Dibbawalas are always seen smiling, content in their small earning of Rs. 4000/- plus minus and living with minimal needs. They cannot afford sickness. These 4000 workers take care of about one lac seventy-five thousand tiffins from Colaba to Kalyan and Churchgate to Virar. If you ask about the customer complaints, believe it or not, not even 100 in 120 years!

With advance intimation, these disciplined descendants of Shivaji’s soldiers take one week leave in a year to go with family to Jejuri for a religious ‘Hawan’. They also have formed a co-operative welfare trust with a monthly contribution of only Rs.10/- and from this accrued fund, they have created ‘Dharmashalas’ at the pilgrimage places like Bhimashankar, Alandi, Jejuri, Pandharpur etc giving good facilities to the pilgrims at a very nominal rate.

Mumbaikars extend their homage and salutes to these modest, dedicated and silent workers.

Based on an original article by Shri Devanshu Desai
and Shri Ajit Popat.
Photographs by Shri Bharat Dangia.
The article appeared in the Gujarati weekly
‘Chitralekha’ dated 30 april 2001.

Readers Comments (1)
  1. kuldeep khanna says:

    there is no match of these great people. I luv mumbai as well as these ppl.

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