July 24, 2021 | 7:00 am
The closure of offices due to the pandemic that left the delivery people of ‘lunchbox’ (food boxes) without work in India has forced them to reinvent themselves in the face of the competition of the applications.
Neither the bombings nor the monsoon rains made Kailash Shinde stop delivering lunches to Mumbai office workers for the past two decades, until the confinement forced this father of two to go on hiatus for an entire year.
Shinde, recognizable by his traditional Gandhi cap and white attire, is one of the 5,000 dabbawalas, the so-called “food box men” in Hindu, who have become the subject of study at the University of California business school Harvard for the precision with which they execute their task.
A complicated system of alphanumeric codes helps these practically illiterate workers collect, select and distribute some 200,000 meals daily in Mumbai on bicycles, carts and through the extensive train network.
Executives such as the British millionaire Richard Branson or the giants Fedex or Amazon have been interested in this “model of service of excellence”.
Due to prolonged confinements, many dabbawalas have had trouble feeding their families since April last year.
“Our members had to work as security guards or day laborers as well as delivery drivers for restaurants,” said Ulhas Muke of the Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust, which represents the largest workforce in the industry.
Original Bombay delivery system
Delivery jobs are becoming increasingly difficult in a space increasingly dominated by mobile applications, especially for people who cannot read or write.
Jadhav has worked as a dabbawala since he was 17 years old, but last year he returned to his village and started growing rice.
Earnings were meager and he greatly missed Bombay, where he led a 30-man team.
The help came in May in the form of a deal with some of Mumbai ‘s most popular restaurants, allowing Jadhav and 30 others to return to work.
But instead of delivering home-cooked meals in metal lunch boxes, he now delivers everything from nachos to spaghetti carbonara to office workers, who are still telecommuting for the second year.
This model offers restaurants an alternative to the local duopoly of Zomato and Swiggy, two home delivery giants whose discounts and tight margins have reduced the profits of dabbawala.
A new beginning
Ulhas Muke, the representative group of the Dabbawala, will open a kitchen to deliver cheap food in Mumbai in the coming weeks.
It has already received millions of dollars in donations, including a $ 2 million contribution from British banking giant HSBC.