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Accountants get tips from the tiffin man
June, 28th 2008

The men who ensure workers in Indias financial capital of Mumbai get their food on time credit their success to simple principles: stick to time and work is worship.

Last week the secrets of ubiquitous dabbawalas, as they are known, were presented at a conference of chartered accountants in Dubai.

The conference which heard presentations on topics like wealth structuring crisis, Indias cost competitiveness, Middle East equity markets and commodities cycle, was perked up by a presentation on the men who transport lunch boxes.

Invited by the Dubai chapter of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India, Manish Tripathi, honorary director of Mumbais dabbawalas, gave a presentation on the trade wearing a now globally recognizable dabbawala white cap and swearing with his hand on a tiffin box that he would "say the truth and nothing but truth" about his trade.

"Believe me, I will give you so much knowledge about dabbawalas that any of you can come to Mumbai and start working as a dabbawala," he told more than 1,000 people in the audience.

"Our work revolves around a few beliefs the most important ones of which are sticking to time and believing that work is worship," he said.

"Annadan is mahadan (giving food is the greatest charity). We dabbawalas have a strong belief in god. But you dont see god, do you? So, whom do you worship? People after all, they are creations of god. You worship god by ensuring that people get to eat their food on time," he said.

"Time," Tripathi said, "is the first thing any dabbawala has to stick to if he has to succeed in the trade."

He explained that every dabbawala believes they are descended form the great Maratha leader Shivaji, and came from the same community.

"Our forefathers fought under Shivaji against powerful enemies. Today, we wage our war against time," he said, adding that this is what ensures that an office-goer in Mumbai gets his or her homemade food for lunch precisely at 12:30 p.m. every working day of the week.

There are about 5,000 dabbawalas in Mumbai who deliver some 200,000 tiffin-boxes. That means 400,000 transactions every day first delivering the full tiffin boxes and then delivering the empty ones back home.

Every dabbawala has to report for duty at their designated locations at precisely 9:30 a.m.

For three hours "We call this war time" the dabbawalas work in a high pressure environment in traffic-congested Mumbai, moving dabbas on foot, carts and local trains to deliver the food to their customers across Indias commercial capital.

"We ensure that all our customers, too, stick to time. A dabbawala waits at a household to collect a dabba for half-a-minute to two minutes and not more," Tripathi said.

For three hours, the dabbawalas work on war footing to cover around 60 to 70 kilometres.

"Red lights, traffic jams, pedestrian crossings cannot stop us. Even policemen in Mumbai let us go when they see our trademark white cap," he said.

So what is the motivating factor for the dabbawalas?

"Every dabbawala is a stakeholder in the system. That is the single most motivating factor. Nobody is an employee, which is why there has not been a single record of strike in our business," he said.

This is what goes into the dabbawalas supply chain management much studied by management gurus and schools which has ensured a now globally renowned error rate of one in 16 million transactions.

That and the coding system are key factors in the success of their supply chain management.

"We cannot afford to have a mistake. Imagine what trust people will have on our services if a customer having orthodox vegetarian Jain food gets someone elses chicken curry," Tripathi said.

As for the educational qualifications of the dabbawalas, Tripathi put his thumb up to mean most are illiterate. "Maybe 15 percent of us reach Class 8. More than that and we will start having problems. Educated people have many questions why, how which can act as hindrances in our strictly time-based trade," he said.

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