The Long Crate: A dabbawala’s weapon of choice

The long crate: A dabbawala’s weapon of choice

My research question- Why do dabbawalas in Mumbai use long head crates for transporting the tiffin boxes?

The Mumbai dabbawala performs a very important duty every day, getting freshly prepared home food delivered to the owners of the various dabbas at their offices.  To do this he utilizes a very special set of tools that are built for the purpose. The most important tool in a dabbawala’s arsenal is the long crate. The crate that the dabbawala uses is unique to his profession, it is a slender crate that is long in its length but short in its width which increases the ease of handling while being transported through trains wading through the Mumbai populace. The crate is used extensively to transport the dabbas to and from the workers home to their offices and back again. It increases their day to day transport efficiency by letting them carry more tiffins per delivery. The form factor enables the dabbawala to easily manoeuvre  the crates during transport and helping them reduce the workload of having to constantly pay heed to their surrounding in order to get the dabbas loaded and offloaded at various points throughout their journey. This allows them to concentrate on properly delivering the dabbas to their destination.

Why does a dabbawala use the long crate and not any other type of crate for his deliveries? How dabbawalas came to be and how they have evolved will allow us to get a better understanding of why long crates are used. The dabbawalas have been around for a long while now, diligently providing their service to those looking for hygienic home cooked food for lunch every day. It all started 125 years back when a Parsi banker wanted to have home cooked food regularly in his office and gave this responsibility to the first ever dabbawala. Others soon started liking this idea and the demand for dabba delivery soared. It was all an informal and individual effort in the beginning, but the visionary Mahadeo Havaji Bachche saw an opportunity and started the lunch delivery service in its present team-delivery format with just 100 dabbawalas. As the city grew and more people started working in Mumbai the deman for dabba delivery grew as well. The efficient “Dabba Coding” system was conceived by the people originally behind the dabba delivery concept and it is going strong till today. The coding system has evolved through various stages with time as well. In the beginning it was a simple colour coding system but today it has evolved into alpha numeric characters as Mumbai has evolved into a widely spread metro with three different train routes(Central,Western and Harbour lines).

So how a dabbawala goes about his day is essential to know and this is how he does it. Early in the morning after his bath and completing his daily pooja he puts a tilak(religious mark) on his forehead and heads out. By 9am he is out on the streets with his bi-cycle. The bi-cycles they use are heavy as their carriers are re-enforced with extra iron to be able to take a lot of weight and they don’t have fancy gear systems to reduce to the work. Then travelling through the Mumbai traffic he reaches the assigned area to collect the tiffin boxes from the various customers utilizing their service. To do this he must travel up and down the multi-storied buildings and few of the old buildings don’t even have elevators. Just imagining travelling up and down buildings a couple of times to get the tiffin boxes make me dizzy, they do it every day. By the time all the tiffin boxes have been collected it is already 10:30. The destination that the tiffin boxes have to be delivered are around 40 kilometres away on an average. He carries 30-40 tiffins on his bicycle fighting the bad roads and traffic. He reaches the nearest railway station and he is not alone. All dabbawalas from different areas gather at the station assigned for the particular sector. The tiffin boxes are then sorted according as per their destination according the dabbawala coding system. Most of the tiffins that a dabbawala originally brought to the station on his bicycle have now been handed over to other dabbawala teams going to different parts of the town. Each of the dabbawala joins the team he has been assigned to and so each of them are now transporting tiffins that have been brought in by someone else.The teamwork and trust that the dabbawalas have amongst themselves is what make them accomplish extraordinary things. Then each team picks up the tiffins that have been sorted and assigned to their destination and transfers them onto the long head crates. Each long crate can hold upto 60 dabbas so the total weight that each dabbawala carries on his head is enormous. The dabbawalas then carry the long head crates and rush towards the platforms. The platforms at Mumbai are usually packed at peak hours but the dabbawalas manage to traverse the railway bridges swiftly with the crates on their heads. They have to catch the right train otherwise the tiffins will reach their destination late which is not acceptable. If a tiffin is going to be transported through a complex route the final sorting for it is done on the platforms itself. Once the right train has arrived on the platform they help each other load the wooden crates in the railway luggage compartment. In some local trains there is a special luggage compartment just for the dabbawalas. After every dabbawala has alighted onto the train with their respective crates, all of them settle down and chat to share news and other information. Then once their assigned destination arrives, each of them get off at their respective stations. It’s usually around 12 by the time the last dabbawala has gotten off at his station. To adhere to time restrictions they must hurry.They take the crates on their heads and rush out. The last station on this particular route is Churchgate and there is a sort of grand gathering of dabbawalas outside the station. All of them are doing one work or other to ensure the tiffins reach their destination on time. They now do the final sorting before taking the dabbas to their destination and this requires a great amount of team work. Now the tiffins are exchanged once more amongst the teams and they are transferred onto trollies. Then the various teams of dabbawalas run to their destination which are mostly business centres across Mumbai. The traffic is usually heavy around these centres and the dabbawalas have to shout and scream in order to make way so that pedestrians know they are coming through. Most of the pedestrians politely oblige and give way to them as they know dabbawalas don’t stop for anyone. Once they reach a business hub they spilt again and each dabbawala takes the responsibility of delivering the tiffin boxes to each of the separate buildings in which the owner of the tiffin is waiting for its delivery. Most of these modern business centres have elevators which reduces work for the dabbawala. By 1 in the afternoon all the dabbas have been delivered and the task has been successfully completed. But has it? All of the dabbawalas now gather at one place,pray together and have their lunch. Only half of the task has been completed, as now the tiffins have to be delivered back. So after lunch they go and collect all the dabbas and go through the same process to get the empty tiffins back to their respective homes. By the time each tiffin has reached back to their source destinations it almost 6 in the evening. Every dabbawala goes through a 9-hour work cycle everyday to accomplish the seemingly simple task of delivering freshly prepared home food to the offices of various customers.

During this daily journey the one tool that the dabbawala regularly utilizes while travelling on foot in and out of stations is the long head crate. This crate is usually between 5.5ft to 7ft long depending on the capability of the dabbawala using it. It is generally 1.5ft in width and has a railing extending along its perimeter that is secured on raised posts that extend upto ½ a feet high. It is usually made from wood or aluminium to keep it light weight. This type of a form factor is used by the dabbawalas because of the agility and manoeuvrability it gives them while transporting the tiffin boxes. Carrying 50 to 60 tiffin boxes full of food during the peak hours in trains is no joke. The design of the crate helps reduce their workload because they don’t have to look to their side all the time that a more square crate design would have required. This type of design also only requires them to balance on one axis, front and back. They don’t need to worry about side to side movement when rushing through packed platforms and bridges. The stairs leading up to the bridges in Mumbai platforms are usually only capable of accommodating two lanes each for going up and down.  The slender form lets them squeeze through during rush hours as only one or two people in front of them need to clear the way in order for them to get through. The only problem with the long head crate is turning it quickly. This is one disadvantage this design has and being weighed down by the tiffin boxes slows down the process of turning them length wise even more. This one flaw is overlooked for all the other great advantages that this form factor has. This is because the amount of times the crate needs to be turned during change of direction is very less compared to getting through the crowd efficiently.

All these minute details to accomplish their daily tasks is what has brought the dabbawalas of Mumbai praise from all over the world for accomplishing such a seemingly simple challenge with great efficiency and optimum results. They are a terrific example of a very good supply chain management system achieving close to Sigma Six standards. You usually don’t see such processes reaching such high standards while utilizing a workforce that has been educated on an average up to the 8th standard. This means that each part of the delivery process that the dabbawalas follow has been optimized very well and the long head crate being a part of the process is a testimony to that. Each detail on this seemingly simple tool has been thought through and implemented accordingly and this is why the dabbawalas today, utilize this tool that cannot be replaced by anything else in their arsenal.


















Mumbai’s Dabbawala: The Uncommon Story of The Common Man-

-by Shobha Bondre

Ebook link-