For the 5,000 dabbawalas of Mumbai, the Covid crisis has been a big blow, destroying their legendary service, depriving them of income and driving most of them back to their villages where they are jobless
Ashok Kumar | Clarion India
MUMBAI – Never in their 130-year history have the ‘dabbawalas’ – the tiffin carriers – of Mumbai faced such a crisis as the one brought about by Covid-19, which has virtually crippled their trade for the past five months.
For the first time, they have had to stop their service of delivering mostly lunch boxes, prepared at the homes of office employees and industry workers and delivered to their work site.
“We have never faced such a crisis in the past,” bemoans Ulhas Shantaram Muke, president, Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Association, which is part of the apex body Mumbai Dabbawala. “This has shattered our profession and most of the dabbawalas have returned to their homes in Pune district.”
Speaking to Clarion India, Muke said the tiffin carriers who went back to their villages are a disgruntled lot. In Mumbai, the average earnings for a dabbawala was between Rs12,000 and Rs18,000 a month before Covid-19 struck in March. “But back in our villages in Pune district, we do not get regular jobs. Many of those who have gone back get odd ones on the fields, earning just around Rs200-Rs300 a day, but not even on a regular, daily basis.”
The tiffin carriers, numbering 5,000, are now pleading with the government urging for relief. “We’ve interacted with legislators and are soon going to meet ministers,” explains Muke. Though Indian Railways has been operating trains on Mumbai’s suburban network, dabbawalas and most other commuters are not allowed to enter railway stations and board the trains. The suburban train service is only for government employees with special passes.
“Since many government officials are working in their offices, we should be allowed to deliver tiffins to them and allowed to travel by trains,” says Muke. “We cannot cycle from their homes to their offices, most often located 30 to 50 km away.” The dabbawalas usually pick up the tiffin from their customer’s homes in the morning, travel by suburban trains and then take handcarts or cycles to deliver them to the offices.
Many housing societies in Mumbai are also not allowing the dabbawalas to enter the complex to collect tiffin boxes from homes because of the Covid scare. “They should exempt us and allow us to enter buildings, or ensure that the tiffins are kept outside with the security,” says Muke.
The state government had provided a set of gloves and masks, but these are not being replaced, he points out. And one dabbawala, Santosh Jadhav, was the first in the group to have succumbed to Covid-19 in June. Many others are naturally scared of taking too many risks now.
For Mumbai’s dabbawalas, who have gained international recognition – even interactions with the likes of Prince Charles and Richard Branson, who met them at railway stations in the city – such as the ‘Six Sigma’ in a Harvard Business School study about 10 years ago, the tough times in the Covid era are proving to be disastrous.