Summer 2005

Working lunch

Mumbai’s dabbawallas deliver 175,000 meals daily to hungry workers using a unique system

The dabbawallas take part in what could only be described as a daily miracle: more than 175,000 meals are collected from commuters’ homes, carried across the city in simple aluminium tiffin boxes and delivered to their workplaces in time for lunch, after which the boxes are collected for the return journey. The operation is carried out by 5000 dabbawallas each of whom is divided into one of 120 registered carrier groups. They work in relay teams and can be found around late morning, gathered in shoals near major railway stations such as Churchgate or weaving through choking streets usually balancing large trays of tiffins on their heads. Given the sheer scale of Mumbai, the worrying lack of paperwork and the low literacy levels within the workforce one could be forgiven for expecting trouble. Yet business magazine Forbes places the dabbawallas alongside Motorola and General Electric with the highly prized Six Sigma rating for quality assurance – recognising a level of correctness that means only one in eight million tiffin boxes fails to reach its destination.

The dabbawalla system can be traced back to the growth of Bombay’s textile industry in the nineteenth century, a boom that brought skilled workers and traders into the city and the spread of new housing developments. Because most of these were beyond walking distance of the mills, lunchtime posed a problem. In the mid-1880s a Parsi banker began to employ an errand boy – known as a coolie – to collect lunch from his home in the Grant Road area and deliver it to his office in the Ballard District. Owing to the absence of catering facilities within the nearby factories the errand boy quickly picked up additional orders and looked to his friends and family members from Pune – a region 50 miles southwest of Mumbai – to help him build his business. Most of the dabbawalla workforce are still drawn from this region and, linked by a strong sense of kinship, they proudly express their Maharashtrian identity through their simple white cotton attire and Nehru caps.

As demand grew, the dabbawallas developed a system of marking the tiffin destinations by attaching coloured wire or string. This evolved into the various hand-painted marks and dashes that can be found on the tins today. Yet surprisingly these marks are not standardised; each group of 30-35 works under a team leader responsible for developing a series for that particular team. These may comprise marks that draw from religious motifs or symbols referring to physical landmarks of the destination. While some teams employ Marathi script, certain colours or the initials of the railway station, others may use a combination of two or three different systems. Because the system relies heavily upon the rail network, the main station destination forms the central mark within the arrangement painted on to the lid of the tin. To add a further twist, each team operates without the luxury of a database and therefore each dabbawalla has to memorise up to 35 addresses.

The success of the dabbawalla system is widely recognised, not only by leading authorities such as Forbes magazine, but also through the many international conference invitations extended to the leaders of the Tiffin Box Suppliers Association. This system, unique to Mumbai, also presents one of the most interesting areas to be uncovered by Kurnal Rawat and Vishal Rawlley and their Typocity project (see Eye no. 52 vol. 13). This ambitious project seeks to record and catalogue various expressions of Mumbai’s rich typographic palette and to digitise a select number of typefaces. Once made available on the Web it is hoped that these fonts will find their way back into the Mumbai cityscape via the neon, back-lit plastic and digital prints now favoured by shop-owners. Yet within their colourful and rapidly expanding collection of Arabic and Art Deco, Devnagri and Bollywood, the team see an immediate opportunity for the marks and dashes of the dabbawallas.

Central to the success of the dabbawalla system is the Mumbai railway network. Since Bombay was renamed Mumbai, politicians have sought to rename the city’s stations in honour of a variety of local heroes, religious personalities and social reformers. The aim is understandable, since the current signage carries distinctly British names within an arrangement clearly inspired by the London Underground. More recently there have been attempts by large corporations to buy the names of locations with a view to self-promotion.

However such instability only adds to the current communication problems within the local rail network. Despite the absence of Tannoy announcements, the train interiors rarely offer any form of rail map. To make matters worse for those trapped within the crowded compartments, the station names are usually set in Devnagri script – alienating to some and difficult to read from a moving train.

The Typocity team suggests that the distinctive dabbawalla iconography can provide the basis for a new system of icons which could resolve many of these problems while at the same time preserving something of the city’s heritage. Their proposal is to digitise a series of the more familiar dabbawalla icons and to incorporate these on to signs, tickets and timetables alongside the station names, thus providing an alternative means of recognition. Yet they feel that the system has the potential to operate in a much broader context. Struggling for a voice within Mumbai’s typo-cacophony, the current road signage is dedicated to destination rather than location and is therefore little help to the disorientated visitor struggling to recognise one district from another. They hope that the introduction of icons on public buildings, post boxes, bus stops and road signs will help signify location and consolidate a sense of local identity.

The ideas will be presented for consideration to the city’s transport authorities in the near future. By looking to the dabbawallas – a source of considerable pride in Mumbai – the Typocity proposal rekindles hope that indigenous typographic forms can survive the seemingly relentless homogenisation of the world’s major cities, and in doing so, help to solve a few information design problems along the way.

Typocity comprises designers Kurnal Rawat and Vishal Rawlley. Thanks to Danesh Anita for additional research and photography.