The dabbawalas (also spelled dabbawallas or dabbawallahs, called tiffin wallahs in older sources) constitute a lunchbox delivery and return system that delivers hot lunches from homes and restaurants to people at work in India, especially in Mumbai. The lunchboxes are picked up in the late morning, delivered predominantly using bicycles and railway trains, and returned empty in the afternoon. 
In the late 1800s, an increasing number of migrants were moving to Bombay from different parts of the country, and fast food and canteens were not prevalent. All these people left early in the morning for offices, and often had to go hungry for lunch. They belonged to different communities, and therefore had different types of tastes, which could only be satisfied by their own home-cooked meals. So, in 1890, Mahadeo Havaji Bachche started a lunch delivery service in Bombay with about a hundred men. This proved to be successful, and the service grew from there. In 1930, he informally attempted to unionize the dabbawalas. Later, a charitable trust was registered in 1956 under the name of Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Trust. The commercial arm of this trust was registered in 1968 as Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Association.
When literally translated, the word "dabbawala" means "one who carries a box". "Dabba" means a box (usually a cylindrical tin or aluminium container) from Persian: دَبّه, while "wala" is an agentive suffix, denoting a doer or holder of the preceding word. An English translation would be "tiffin box delivery man".
Lunch boxes are marked in several ways:
A colour-coding system identifies the destination and recipient. Each dabbawala is required to contribute a minimum capital in kind, in the form of two bicycles, a wooden crate for the tiffins, white cotton kurta-pyjamas, and the white Gandhi cap (topi). Each month there is a division of the earnings of each unit. Fines are imposed for alcohol, tobacco, being out of uniform, and absenteeism.
A collecting dabbawala, usually on bicycle, collects dabbas either from a worker's home or from the dabba makers. As many of the carriers are of limited literacy (the average literacy of Dabbawallahs is that of 8th grade), the dabbas (boxes) have some sort of distinguishing mark on them, such as a colour or group of symbols.
The dabbawala then takes them to a sorting place, where he and other collecting dabbawalas sort the lunch boxes into groups. The grouped boxes are put in the coaches of trains, with markings to identify the destination of the box (usually there is a designated car for the boxes). The markings include the railway station to unload the boxes and the destination building delivery address. Some modern infrastructure improvements such as the Navi Mumbai Metro are not used in the supply chain, as cabins do not have the capacity for hundreds of tiffins.
At each station, boxes are handed over to a local dabbawala, who delivers them. The empty boxes are collected after lunch or the next day and sent back to the respective houses. The dabbawalas also allow for delivery requests through SMS.
Most dabbawalas are related to each other, belong to the Varkari sect of Maharashtra, and come from the same small village near Pune. Tiffin distribution is suspended for five days each March as the dabbawalas go home for the annual village festival.
Dabbawalas have traditionally been male, but as of 2013, a few women had begun joining the profession. A dabbawala can be either a foreman, mukadam, or a simple delivery man, gaddi. Typically, they begin between the ages of 15 and 20. While they take pride in their freedom and the fact that they work in a network of their relatives, the relatively low compensation provided for their physical exertion makes them discourage their own children from joining the profession.
In a typical day, a dabbawala picks up tiffins every morning and then sorts them once before they are loaded onto the morning train (at approximately 10 a.m.). The tiffins are sorted another time in the luggage compartment of the train. At the destination station, the tiffins are loaded into carts and deposited in stacks at the entrances of the various workplaces. Following lunch, the same procedure is carried out in the reverse order with the empty tiffins.
The earliest meetings of the Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Association were held in the open air. They took up premises in 1943 and settled the headquarters at Dadar in 1962. Located on the first floor of a building, the premises consist of a large, simply furnished room. A large mirrored painting of Saint Dnyaneshwar with Vithoba adorns one corner. Other portraits adorning the room include those of Bal Gangadhar Tilak and the founder of the association, Mahadeo Havaji Bachche.
The association was reportedly started after a dabbawalla was ill-treated by a customer, resulting in the dabbawallas deciding to form a "united front" while dealing with injustices or difficulties, such as funerals. The association also helps with managing legal issues, including conflicts between mukadams and gaddis. All conflicts are resolved in the presence of 20 mukadams, which are selected every six years.
The charitable Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Trust consists of nine members who are elected every five years. Its main role is to collect funds for dharamshalas.
Each dabbawala, regardless of role, is paid around 8,000 rupees per month (about US$131 in 2014). Between 175,000 and 200,000 lunch boxes are moved each day by 4,500 to 5,000 dabbawalas. Tiffin-wallahs are self-employed. The union initiation fee is 30,000 rupees, which guarantees a 5,000-rupee monthly income and a job for life. The 150 rupee a month fee provides for delivery six days a week. (2002)
It is frequently claimed that dabbawalas make less than one mistake in every six million deliveries; however, this is only an estimation from Ragunath Medge, the president of the Mumbai Tiffinmen's Association in 1998, and is not from a rigorous study. Medge told Subrata Chakravarty, the lead author of the "Fast Food" article by Forbes where this claim first appeared, that dabbawalas make a mistake "almost never, maybe once every two months" and this statement was extrapolated by Subrata Chakravarty to be a rate of "one mistake in 8 million deliveries." Chakravarty recalled the affair in an interview and said:
"Forbes never certified the dabbawalas as being a six-sigma organization. In fact, I never used the term at all. As you know, six-sigma is a process, not a statistic. But it is commonly associated with a statistic of 1.9 errors per billion operations, and that is what caused the confusion … . I was impressed by the efficiency and complexity of the process by which some 175,000 tiffin boxes were sorted, transported, delivered and returned each day by people who were mostly illiterate and unsophisticated. I asked the head of the organization how often they made a mistake. He said almost never, maybe once every two months. Any more than that would be unforgivable to customers. I did the math, which works out to one mistake in 8 million deliveries—or 16 million, since the tiffin carriers are returned home each day. That is the statistic I used. Apparently, at a conference in 2002, a reporter asked the president … whether the tiffinwallahs were a six-sigma organization. He said he didn't know what that was. When told about the 1.9 error-per-billion statistics, I'm told he said: "Then we are. Just ask Forbes". The reporter, obviously without having read my story, wrote that Forbes had certified the tiffinwallahs as a six-sigma organization. That phrase was picked up and repeated by other reporters in other stories and now seems to have become part of the folklore."— Subrata Chakravarty, 
The New York Times reported in 2007 that the 125-year-old dabbawala industry continues to grow at a rate of 5–10% per year.
Various studies have focused on dabbawalas:
The 2013 Bollywood film The Lunchbox is based on the dabbawala service.
The Top Gear: India Special, a special episode of the British TV series Top Gear, had the presenters Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May attempting to outdo the dabbawalas in efficiency and accuracy, by delivering the lunches with their cars, rather than by train and bicycle.
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