From meal-providers to menial labour: Mumbai's dabbawalas forced to scrape bottom of the barrel
From meal-providers to menial labour: Mumbai's dabbawalas forced to scrape bottom of the barrel

Mumbai: Hit hard by yet another pandemic-induced lockdown and struggling to make ends meet, Mumbai’s iconic dabbawalas have been forced to take up menial jobs. Many who returned to their home towns during the first lockdown have returned to the financial capital just to take up work as ‘hamals’ (labourers) or as security guards and so on, to support themselves and their families.

Of the 5,000 dabbawalas, only 50 have been brought back to work, for now, said Vinod Shete, spokesperson of the Mumbai Dabbawala Association, an umbrella body of dabbawalas. The association, in existence for more than 125 years, has now pleaded with the state government for financial assistance and the provision of secure jobs to their registered members.

Until the sudden nationwide lockdown last year, the dabbawalas in Mumbai and neighbouring districts delivered dabbas or lunch boxes to approximately two lakh people/ officegoers daily. A dabbawala picks up a ‘dabba’ from the home of the recipient and delivers it to them at their place of work. The dabba would pass through various hands but would reach the designated person precisely at lunchtime - never late and without mix-ups. The league of the lunchbox men became the stuff of legend after Prince Charles of the UK personally visited them in 2003 and two years later, they received an invitation to his wedding with the Duchess of Cornwall Camilla Parker-Bowles in 2005.

In October 2020, dabbawalas were allowed to travel on local trains as the city limped back to normalcy, but they didn’t get the desired response from their regular customers. “Even when we were allowed to travel by train, majority of us were not allowed to enter many buildings and office premises. Some clients work from home, some lost their jobs while others carry their own tiffins to work and follow physical distancing. From our earlier strength of 5,000, we restarted with just 450 dabbawalas during Mission Begin Again, but due to the poor response, this number was further cut down to 200,” Shete told The Free Press Journal.

In August last year, a desperate Mumbai Dabbawala Association (MDA) appealed to people to donate cycles, as it became impossible for them to pay for the maintenance costs of their earlier trusty, now rusty cycles.

Of the 5,000 registered dabbawalas, only 50 are currently working as dabbawalas. Pre-Covid, each dabbawala would deliver 20-25 tiffins a day. That number has now come down drastically, the dabbawalas say.

Namdev Kanse, 36, who has been a dabbawala for the past 15 years has now joined a transport service that picks up sacks of foodgrain (rice, wheat etc) from the Dana Bunder market in Vashi to grocery shops around Bhandup and Mulund, working as a ‘hamal’. Kanse used to earn Rs 20,000 to Rs 25,000 monthly in his earlier avatar but now, he makes anything between Rs 5,000 to Rs 10,000 depending on the amount of work. “I have to cover everything-household expenses, books, the education of my kids and even house rent. I pay Rs 4,000 as house rent. It has become very difficult and we are now barely living hand to mouth. I don’t know how many days I will be able to pull on like this. My kids often miss their online classes, as many times I have to carry the only mobile phone we have,” said Kanse.

Another dabbawala, Dilip Sawant, who has started working as a labourer at the electronic market in Lamington Road said he was struggling to survive on a meagre salary of Rs 5,000 to Rs 6,000. “Working as a dabbawala for 26 years, I have good experience of delivering lunch boxes. I thought nothing could stop the work of dabbawalas but I was wrong. Everything has come to a standstill and we have lost our jobs. Many of my colleagues have left the city and work as farmers. I don’t have that option, so I continue to work as a labourer in the city,” he says, resignedly.

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