Technology Can't Trump India's Lunchtime Traditions

Food apps, after a boom in start-ups over the past three years, have been failing or scaling back in India. They are no match for the famed tiffin-delivery business that has been in operation for decades. Bloomberg photographer Dhiraj Singh followed dabbawalas Dadabhau Shivaji and Dasharath Kedari  on their daily rounds.


As the apps designed to supersede them have failed, India's traditional food-delivery systems — like the dabbawalas of Mumbai — have become stronger. They have capitalized on their networks and now make deliveries for large e-commerce companies like Flipkart.


Dabbawala Dadabhau Shivaji, 28, leaves home with his own lunch. Each morning, about 5,000 men collect up to 175,000 meals from homes and community kitchens, deliver them to offices and schools, and bring the empty containers back.

Dadabhau collects a lunchbox from a residential client.  The dabbawalas are a Mumbai institution that started in the 1890s to meet a demand for home-cooked meals for Indian bureaucrats and officials working in the British colonial offices and business houses.


Dadabhau wheels his bicycle past the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. The word "dabba" loosely means "lunch box", and dabbawala translates to lunch delivery man. Initially the lunch boxes were carried in metal canisters with handles that can be hung on the handlebars of bicycles or packed tightly in pushcarts. These days cloth bags are also used to ferry the lunch boxes.

Dabbawala Dasharath Kedari, 42, collects meals from a business's kitchen. Customers can arrange for lunch boxes to be picked up from their own homes, or from hundreds of community kitchens that specialize in a particular kind of cuisine. Patrons can choose between vegetarian, north Indian, south Indian, Chinese, or even calorie-limited and diabetes-friendly meals.

Dasharath attaches tiffin boxes to a bicycle in the Santacruz area. A system of alphanumeric codes identifies the source and destination of each dabba. The bulk of deliveries starts at about 9 a.m., and the empty boxes are collected at about 1 p.m.

Dasharath carries the tiffin boxes through Santacruz railway station. Customers need to subscribe for a whole month to the delivery service. The dabbawalas don’t take orders on-demand for security reasons, the organization’s spokesman Subodh Sangle said. The threat of bombs and contraband being hidden in the boxes means they strictly enforce the monthly rule.

Dasharath carries a crate of  tiffin boxes to a train at Santacruz railway station. The boxes are mainly transported on the city’s trains, while the short hop from the stations to homes and offices is usually via cycles or pushcarts.

Dasharath and Dadabhau travel with other dabbawalas and commuters. Monthly charges for the dabbawalas' lunch service range from 400 rupees to 1,200 rupees ($6 to $18) , depending on the neighborhood. The rate is not dependent on the distance, and is instead based on the ability of the customer to pay. Residents of upscale neighborhoods tend to pay higher rates.

The dabbawalas — subject of the 2013 film 'The Lunchbox' and a Harvard Business Review case study in logistics — enjoy their new-found fame as they pose for tourists' photographs outside Churchgate railway station.

Dadabhau takes an elevator to deliver a lunchbox at an office in the Fort area. He came to Mumbai in 2003 and, like many villagers, has worked as dabbawala since his arrival.

Dadabhau delivers lunch to a customer at work. Dadabhau begins his day in the Andheri area of Mumbai at about 8:30 a.m. and is finished by 5 p.m. 

Dasharath has lunch with his colleagues in a restaurant in the Lower Parel area. Dasharath ferries about 30 lunch boxes from the suburbs every day. He got into the business 25 years ago, following his elder brother into the job.

The dabbawalas’ history and reputation has kept customers coming. Thanks to their citywide scale and near monopoly on the weekday lunch delivery business, they've been profitable for nearly a century and provide salaries and training programs for their 5,000-strong workforce. Real-time tracking and glitzy apps haven't changed that.