“Dabbawalas do ordinary tasks in extraordinary ways”

  10 min 52 sec to read
“Dabbawalas do ordinary   tasks in extraordinary ways”

Pawan Agarwal
CEO, Mumbai Dabbawalas
International Motivational Speaker, Author and Educationist

Pawan G Agarwal is an international motivational speaker, author, educationist, business consultant and a successful entrepreneur. He has done his PhD on ‘Mumbai Dabbawalas’ and has delivered various sessions worldwide at top educational platforms such as TEDx, Cambridge University, CEO Talks and many  Fortune 500 companies including Honda, Dell, Merck and Vodafone. He delivers sessions on ‘Supply Chain Management of Mumbai Dabbawalas.’ CEO of Mumbai Dabbawalas Association, he inspires and encourages people to make them realise their true potential. Agarwal, with 30 years of research, understanding and experience has helped people on the path of personal growth and organisational fulfillment. Having given several rounds of such talks around India, as well as Asia, Africa and beyond the Pacific and US, he has been honored with several awards. Along with his regular work, Agarwal also runs the Mumbai Dabbawala Education Centre under the Kamalabai Educational and Charitable Trust to further the education of Dabbawalas as well as underprivileged children. He was recently in Kathmandu for an event aimed at inspiring startups. In an interview with Nikeeta Gautam and Sushil Pangeni of New Business Age, he talks about the works of Dabbawalas, their logistics and supply chain management and his new research venture. Excerpts:

Mumbai Dabbawalas are considered to be among the best logistics and supply chains in the world. What are the reasons behind the success?
I completed my PhD on the Mumbai Dabbawalas after nine years of research. Many people were surprised about my enthusiasm to learn more about the Dabbawalas. When people asked me, I used reply that “A Dabbawala is someone who does ordinary tasks in an extraordinary way.”

They collect home cooked foods and deliver them to their customers’ offices and after lunch is over they deliver the empty tiffin boxes back home. What they do might not be so important, but how they have been completing their tasks every day is something really remarkable and praiseworthy. They use local train networks which are cheaper, run every day and are best for logistics. Besides local trains, they also use bicycles.

Logistics is among the most concerning issues for most businesses. It has to be done neatly, effectively and in time. The work of Dabbawalas who use local train networks and bicycles is a perfect example of effective logistics.  They carry tiffin boxes on their heads and shoulders and take 20-40 boxes easily for places nearby. They always feel a sense of insecurity in that if they charge more, their customers might switch to restaurants. These are the secrets to the continuous success of the Mumbai Dabbawalas who have been in the delivery business for the last 125 years. 

Being a delivery service, maintaining an efficient supply chain management is important for Mumbai Dabbawalas. What is behind their ability to maintain the high level of efficiency for so many years?
 5,000 Dabbawalas deliver 200,000 boxes of tiffins and they are interlinked. The man who collects tiffins might not deliver it to the respective customer and vice versa. In this way the delivery personnel get interlinked. They are not bothered about the earnings of fellow Dabbawals but are driven by principals like self-responsibility, punctuality and dedication. They have been doing the same simple business over years and years in a very perfect way. Hence they are the best in the world in supply chain management and logistics.

What do you think are the motivating factors?
Despite being illiterate, Dabbawalas earn INR 14-20 thousand per month at present. Secondly, they are very proud of their ancestral business. They are doing the same task which their father and grandfather used to do.  Similarly, they feel that serving customers is serving God. The delivery business also offers them extra time in the early mornings and evenings so that they can earn additional money. Moreover, Dabbawalas are from a particular community called Maratha. Coming from the community, they feel like they are the soldiers of King Shivaji Maratha and this feeling increases their working capacity. Families and friends in this community motivate each other. 

Their group leader is called ‘Mukadam’ who is the oldest among the group. The ‘Mukadam’ though being aged works more passionately than any other group member. By observing their leader’s passion for work, they are always encouraged to become more dedicated. Due to the passion for their work, they get a particular gesture and recognition than people in similar jobs.

What specific techniques do they employ to deliver on time in a huge busy city like Mumbai?
With their slogan ‘Karna Hai To Karna Hai’, they always deliver lunch boxes on time despite the challenges. They often carry 60-65 kg in the crowded local trains. They have been delivering the consignments so effectively because of their hard work. 

Sometimes local trains may not run on time, especially during the rainy season. Despite such problems, they have always delivered the boxes on time. They do not use road transport because they are costly and are likely to get stuck in traffic jams.

Whatever task you are doing, you should always complete it on time. Irrespective of circumstances, it is better to be five minutes early rather than one minute late. So, Dabbawalas always start their work 20-30 minutes earlier so that they can deliver boxes on time. Hence the customers say “Our watch can go wrong but not Mumbai Dabbawalas.”Hence, the time managing technique of Dabbawalas has helped them to win the trust and confidence of their customers. 

How much on an average do they earn? How much business is done and what is the growth rate?  
They work in groups and share their income. In a group, they collect money from customers at the end of the month.  After deducting all expenses, the money is distributed equally among the members. Dabbawalas increase their charges once every two years by approximately 15 percent. Hence, income growth is around 15-20 percent every two years. Normally, they earn INR 15,000 a month.  

The total annual turnover of Dabbawalas is somewhere between INR 500 to 600 million. For the last few years the total turnover has been stagnant. Increasing immigration, new eateries and some companies providing mid-day meals to their employees has affected the growth of their business. 

Are there any social initiatives of the Dabbawalas?
As far as CSR is concerned, Dabbawalas do not contribute money because they have limited funds. Yet, they contribute their services. For example, they are among the brand ambassadors of ‘Swachha Bharat Abhiyan’ where every Saturday and Sunday they voluntarily participate in cleaning different areas of the city. Similarly, every Sunday they organise a Yoga training session for themselves, their family members which is also open to outsiders. Likewise, wherever there are problems, Dabbawalas are always ready to offer their help. Accustomed to the hustle and bustle of the city, they were the top rescuers during the Mumbai floods in 2005. As far as service is concerned, they initiated the ‘Share My Dabba’ campaign a few years back. If customers do not eat their lunches for whatever reasons, Dabbawalas deliver the food to the street children after getting permission. They provide ‘Share My Dabba’ stickers to their customers which are put on the uneaten lunch boxes. The ‘Roti Bank’ campaign has been in effect for the last seven months. People who are having parties or functions need to inform Dabbawalas to collect excess food items to distribute to the needy.

How will you bring other people into this business? Will the current system be effective in the future also?
When someone wants to join or bring somebody into your organisation, you should train them first. The owners know what is happening and what is needed to grow their businesses, so they must educate their new members about the work techniques. Dabbawalas Association is doing the same. 

The scenario will definitely change tomorrow. With the changing times, technology will play a major role in delivering effective services. The new generation of Dabbawalas should know how to use computers, check emails, operate online deliveries and other technologies to work faster so that they will able to deliver other things than food items. They will need other means of transport as Mumbai is growing very fast. So, I believe when the qualified children of Dabbawalas or other youths join the business, they will fulfill this need.

What is your message to startups, youths and our readers?
Everybody should work with passion, commitment and dedication. You should not feel that you are working for money despite the fact that your motto is money. Sometimes you may not have the desired income but you should work with great consistency. No matter how many customers you have, you should deliver service with perfection without feeling inferior. Perseverance is a must and working continuously for a longer period in the same sector will give you recognition someday. You should always aspire to do your best and deal with the hurdles. 

Today's youngsters are talented and outstanding with great qualities but they are not working hard enough and to the best of their capabilities. Along with being smart, being hardworking is essential. We don’t know what life may bring us tomorrow; working hard has to be a daily routine in life. Working continuously will give you a better life, all told.

With women increasingly joining the workforce, wives nowadays don’t have time to prepare meals for their husbands. Do you think that this traditional system of tiffin delivery can continue to grow?
It is true that many of today’s wives do not have time to cook food. Nevertheless, they also need tiffins. Many online food deliveries have evolved in the recent years. Such companies ask Dabbawalas to deliver the foods to their clients. So Dabbawalas collect and deliver food from restaurants and online centres. Customers nowadays prefer meals prepared by restaurants and Dabbawalas are well recognised for their delivery. 

Tell us something about yourself? What led you to lead the Dabbawalas Association?
I consider myself very fortunate to be in this position today. My father was a farmer and I came from a very poor family. I went to Mumbai for my education.  My father taught me to earn and learn. So, I was a hard working person since my childhood.  After gaining my higher academic qualifications, I wanted to become a teacher as I had seen and felt the struggle of poor children in education. I went into teaching and taught for 30 years.

 After years of teaching, while I was looking for something different, I generated an interest in Dabbawalas and took up a PhD thesis on Logistics and Supply Chain Management in 1999. The topic of the thesis was ‘A study of logistics and supply chain management of Dabbawala in Mumbai.’ I took charge and started my research on Dabbawalas. Meanwhile, I abandoned my doctoral thesis and started to do in-depth research. Finally, after nine years on this topic I got to understand them emotionally as well. Right now I am doing a research on ‘Newspaper Delivery Boys’ who also have a big a supply chain in Mumbai. Currently, about 50,000 people are engaged in this profession.

I am also operating schools across four locations in Mumbai. These schools provide education to underprivileged students from the families of Dabbawalas and other people. As of today, more than 5,000 students are getting free education under the ‘Kamalabai Educational and Charitable Trust.’ The Trust supports the students from school level to post-graduate level.

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