Dabba wallas and dhobis

We started the day with a tour to see how some of the hardworking underbelly of Mumbai make a living.

Like in Fort Kochi, the British officers brought and kept their dhobis (laundry men) and in 1947, after independence, the dhobis remained and started servicing Indian needs (hospitals, hotels, businesses that require uniforms, and textile factories).

The ghats abut the Byculla train station and laundry is delivered by train or cart. The dhobis are not native to Mumbai, and live in miserable conditions surrounding the ghats – however, an emblem of pride is a dish attached to the patchwork roof of their dwelling!

we took the train several stations to Church Gate, where we watched the dabba wallas at work. On the way we saw these poor women (likely of the lowest caste)replenishing the crushed rocks between the railway tracks using nothing but a metal scoop. Back breaking work!

Dabba wallas are peculiar to Mumbai.

Dabba = box (usually a cylindrical tin or multiple containers also called “tiffin”;

Walla or wallah = a doer or holder – person.

When literally translated, the word “dabba walla” means “one who carries a box”.

In 1890 a Parsi banker wanted to have a home-cooked meal in his office, and so the first Dabba walla and the profession came into existence. Many others liked this idea and the demand for home-cooked meals delivered to the place of work soared. Mahadeo Havaji, a Parsi, saw the business opportunity and started the lunch delivery service with 100 dabba wallas and it continues in a very similar delivery format to this day as an association. Most dabba wallas are related to each other, belong to the Varkari sect of Maharashtra, and come from the same small village near Pune. Income of about 8,000 rupees a month ($125) is divided equally between all the dabba wallas who are self-employed, but belong to a union which guarantees a monthly income and a job for life!

Nowadays, about 5,000 dabba wallas, wearing a traditional Ghandi cap, deliver tiffin boxes to about 200,000 customers who pay about 3,000 rupees a month ($45).

How does it work? A dabba walla picks up the tiffin box from the home of the customer during mid to late morning. The lunch box is marked with alpha numeric coding to identify the pick up area, individual, delivery area and delivery location. These dabbas are then taken to the closest train station, and delivered by train to one of several central distribution spots (this is the step that we visited). The tiffins are carried from the train in long (about 5 feet) shallow crates and are then divided into delivery location using the coding. The dabbas are loaded on to a bicycle (up to about 25 per bicycle) for delivery by the local dabba walla. This whole process is repeated in reverse, after lunch, to return the tiffin from the office back home!

Afterwards we drove by and made quick visit to India Gate, built to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary and the imposing Taj Mahal hotel.

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