Lunchboxes locked! For Dabbawalas of Mumbai, future is uncertain

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Published: June 10, 2020 6:33 PM

Dabbawalas stopped their service on March 19 after the coronavirus scare began to spread. The government is now allowing offices and businesses in Mumbai to reopen, but there is uncertainty about when Dabbawalas would be able to resume their service. 

On ordinary days, over 5,000 Dabbawalas deliver over two lakh lunch boxes to office-goers in Mumbai. (Reuters)

When lockdown was announced, the famous Dabbawalas or lunch box carriers of Mumbai returned to their villages.
Some of them had their agricultural farms to fall back on, but then came Cyclone Nisarga, which laid waste to their
houses as well as crops in the fields. Like others in the unorganised sector, they too need help from the government, said Subhash Talekar, spokesperson of the Mumbai Dabbawala Association, on Wednesday.

Dabbawalas stopped their service on March 19 after the coronavirus scare began to spread. The government is now
allowing offices and businesses in Mumbai to reopen, but there is uncertainty about when Dabbawalas would be able to resume their service. “Our service is completely dependent on suburban trains. We cannot start our service until local trains start. When would the train services start, in July or August? Nobody knows,” Talekar told PTI.

There is also uncertainty about customers’ response. “In most buildings in the city, housing societies have banned the entry of even relatives. Will they allow us to enter to pick up and drop lunch boxes even though we are ready to take utmost care by wearing masks and using sanitizers?” Talekar asked.

On ordinary days, over 5,000 Dabbawalas deliver over two lakh lunch boxes to office-goers in Mumbai. They are now
almost world-famous for their efficiency and punctuality; in 1998 Forbes Global magazine awarded them a Six Sigma rating. Most Dabbawalas come from Maval area of Pune district, nestled in the Sahyadris.

After lockdown was imposed, many of them returned to their villages in Junnar, Ambegaon, Rajgurunagar, Maval, Haveli, Mulshi and other parts of the district. Due to the sudden coming into force of lockdown, they could not even collect payments for March, and most of them exhausted their saving soon.

“It was difficult to survive in Mumbai. Therefore I returned to my village,” said Raghunath Medge, speaking from Kadus in Rajgurunagar tehsil. He will return only when local trains start and currently he was busy preparing the fields for paddy as rains have arrived, Medge said.

Talekar said the cyclone which hit Raigad coast on June 3 and passed through the Pune district proved to be a
double whammy for the Dabbawalas as it destroyed houses, cattle sheds and farms. “Many of them can not be even contacted as electricity in villages has not been restored,” he added.

As in the case of labourers in other unorganised sectors, Dabbawalas are also expecting help from the government, he said. “Dabbawalas of Mumbai have always stood behind the Shiv Sena during elections. In this difficult time, we expect Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray to help us,” Talekar said. Normally Dabbawalas earn about Rs 20,000 per month. Even if they resume work, they are not sure if they would make the same income now as people could be wary of using their services because of the pandemic, he added.

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