For the past 30 years, come rain or shine, Rohidas Sawant has been up at the crack of dawn six days a week to cycle through the lanes of Mumbai collecting stacks of steel lunchboxes, known as tiffin carriers or dabbas , packed with steaming hot curries, dal, rice and rotis from people’s front doors. Once he has done his rounds, he parks his bike at the railway station, helps load the tiffin carriers onto a crowded suburban train, then clambers aboard himself – assisting with their synchronised loading and unloading before passing the baton to a local dabbawalla (lunchbox deliverer) who rushes the meals from office to office in time for lunch. The empty dabbas are then collected and returned to where they came from by the evening, completing the cycle. Mumbai’s dabbawallas – known for their signature white uniforms and Gandhi caps – are renowned for their low tech but highly reliable lunchbox delivery network in India ’s financial capital. Traditionally male, in more recent years a few women have begun to join their ranks as well. So impressive are their delivery skills that British billionaire Richard Branson reportedly travelled with them once to better understand their operations and Prince Charles, the UK’s heir apparent, invited them to his wedding with Camilla after meeting them in 2003. They have even been the subject of a Harvard Business School study that examined what international companies could learn from their model of “service excellence”. It all began more than 130 years ago, when Mumbai had few if any public eateries yet was home to an increasing number of economic migrants from different areas, who had a wider variety of tastes and dietary requirements. It is said that the first dabbawalla was employed by a Parsee banker who wanted a home-cooked meal brought to his office. Informal and unorganised at first, the idea soon caught on. India’s rich flee by private jets as Covid-19 crisis spirals Mahadeo Havaji Bachche is credited with starting Mumbai’s first formal lunch delivery service in 1890 with about 100 men – many of them from villages in the Sahyadri hills near Pune who had little to no formal education. By 1956, a charitable trust had been registered in the name of the “tiffin box suppliers”. An association was also formed to look after their interests, prevent their ill-treatment and manage any conflicts or legal issues. Today there are about 5,000 dabbawallas in Mumbai who before the coronavirus pandemic would each earn around 10,000 rupees (US$134) per month ensuring some 200,000 or so office workers in the city eat on time every day – quite the feat, especially given that many cannot read and rely on colour-coding to identify the dabbas and their destinations. Yet lockdowns, a massive increase in remote working and restrictions on local trains amid the pandemic have combined to threaten their livelihoods, with the dabbawallas appealing to the government for financial support. An online fundraiser that was set up to help them raised more than 2 million rupees (US$26,750). “Out of the network of almost 5,000 dabbawallas , only about 5 per cent are working in the pandemic,” said Mumbai Dabbawala Association President Raghunath Medge. “ Many have taken up odd jobs like delivering newspapers to feed their families. For the first time in decades, our livelihood has come to a standstill. Many of them have retreated to their villages, to eke out a living by working on the fields. Some of them have started delivering vegetables.” Medge, who has been delivering dabbas himself since 1980, said he derived great satisfaction from his work because “feeding people is a service to god”. He credited “Mumbai’s unique geography” with popularising the service – which costs clients around 1,200 rupees (US$16) for a month’s worth of deliveries – as “most people work in the business district of South Mumbai and live up to 70km away”. Our decades-old profession is at stake Jaisingh Phapale, Mumbai dabbawalla A lucky few dabbawallas such as Jaisingh Phapale have been able to find work supplying lunches to companies and families even amid the pandemic, but he still worries for the future. “Hardly any dabbawallas remain now in Mumbai,” he said. “Organisations like the Rotary and Lions Clubs and some big corporations have helped us in a small way with food grains and cash donations, but it’s not enough. Our decades-old profession is at stake.” Vilasji Shinde, a dabbawalla for 22 years, now delivers milk around the city’s suburbs. “It’s a difficult time around the world, but I somehow manage to look after my family and pay the rent,” he said. “Some of the other dabbawallas are sustaining themselves working as housekeepers or as gardeners, some drive rickshaws and many others have returned to their villages. [But] what will I do outside Mumbai? This is my life.” In nine years of research for his PhD on the dabbawallas’ logistics and supply chain management, Pawan Aggarwal, an educator and motivational speaker based in Mumbai, found that what set them apart was their commitment, passion and focus on time management and customer satisfaction. “It’s a case of ordinary people doing an extraordinary task,” he said. “Over the years many things have changed and affected their business even before the pandemic, like the advent of food delivery apps like Swiggy and Zomato, and the food preferences of the Indian youth for whom home cooked meals are not a priority any more.” “The future is uncertain, and we are not sure whether the dabbawalla business that filled the bellies of Mumbai will resume after the pandemic. Only time will tell,” Dr Aggarwal added.