Mumbai’s 100-year-old Urban Lunchbox Courier Service

 A popular tourist activity in Mumbai is observing the amazing courier service that picks up and returns home-made lunchboxes (tiffins) for people at work and school. Our tour group’s glimpse of this system appealed to my interest in transport systems: this system, traditionally staffed by a members of a Hindu sect from Pune called the Varkari, has grown organically since 1890. The Indian name for these lunch box couriers is dabbawala. (There’s plenty of information online about this, so I’ll just summarize here.)

Transport vehicles include foot, bicycle and train. The city trains provide an important link for getting food downtown: the trains even have cars dedicated to dabbawala transport. There’s a sophisticated coding system for pallets and lunchboxes to ensure that everything gets to where it’s supposed to go, but personal knowledge of customers and routes is also a key to success. We stopped our little bus outside of the Churchgate station of the Western line around 11:30 to see the dabbawalas in action as they took trays of tiffins off the trains and set them up for local delivery by bike.

A tiffin is a lunchbox designed to keep the elements of the hearty mid-day meal
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separated until it’s time to eat: the rice or lentils, the sauces or chutneys, and the breads.

Many people in Mumbai still have someone (Mom, or perhaps a servant) at home who can make home-cooked lunches for commuters and schoolchildren. A  The dabbawalas pick up lunch boxes from homes around 9:30 am and have them delivered to workplaces and schools by 1. Then, they return all the lunchboxes to their homes in the afternoon.

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