Mumbai’s size and inconvenient shape create all kind of hassles for its working population. One thing the daily tidal wave of commuters does not have to worry about, however, is where to find an inexpensive and wholesome home-cooked lunch. The members of the Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust (NMTSCT), known colloquially as “dabbawalas”, see to that. Every day, around 5000 dabbawalas deliver freshly cooked meals from 200,000 suburban kitchens to offices in the downtown area. Each is prepared early in the morning by a wife or mother while her husband or son is enduring the crush on the train. She arranges the rice, dhal, subzi, curd and parathas into cylindrical aluminium trays, stacks them on top of one another and clips them together with a neat little handle.

This tiffin box is the linchpin of the whole operation. When the runner calls to collect it in the morning, he uses a special colour code on the lid to tell him where the lunch has to go. At the end of his round, all the boxes are carried to the nearest railway station and handed over to other dabbawalas for the trip into town. Between leaving the cook and reaching its final destination, the tiffin box will pass through at least half a dozen different pairs of hands, carried on heads, shoulder-poles, bicycle handlebars and in the brightly decorated handcarts that glide with such insouciance through the midday traffic.

To catch them in action, head for CST (VT) or Churchgate stations around late morning, when the tiffin boxes arrive in the city centre to a chorus of “lafka! lafka” – “hurry! hurry!” – as the dabawallahs rush to make their lunch-hour deadlines. Nearly all come from the same small village near Pune and are related to one another.

One of the reasons the system survives in the face of competition from trendy fast-food outlets is that dabba lunches still work out a good deal cheaper, saving precious rupees for the middle-income workers who use the system. Competition has recently arisen from high-end takeaway joints in Mumbai, some of whom offer freshly prepared gourmet food delivered in tiffin tins. But the dabbawalas are not sitting on their heels in the face of the new competition, with a website (dabewale.com) to facilitate booking online and by SMS. An excellent initiative called “Share my Dabba” has also been launched to prevent wastage of uneaten food and distribute it to the needy.

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