ArrowArtboardCreated with Sketch.Title ChevronTitle ChevronIcon FacebookIcon LinkedinIcon Mail ContactPath LayerIcon MailPositive ArrowIcon Print

Mumbai's 'dabbawalas' go digital to beat COVID-19

Indian lunchbox deliverers are fast adopting technology to stay in business

dabbawala, or lunchbox deliveryman, balances his cargo in Mumbai in pre-pandemic times. These traditional deliverymen have been distributing lunchboxes to thousands of people across the city every day since 1890, but COVID-19 has dealt a huge blow to business, forcing many to seek work elsewhere. (Getty Images)

NEW DELHI -- His bicycle laden with shiny steel dabbas (tiffin boxes), Neelu Sawant weaves his way through Mumbai's traffic maze to deliver lunch to offices around India's financial capital. Dressed in a crisp white kurta-pajama and a traditional Gandhi cap, the 45-year-old's day begins at dawn with the collection of freshly cooked food from a range of home kitchens -- his routine for 23 years, six days a week.

Sawant is part of an army of 5,000 dabbawalas (lunchbox deliverymen) who have been distributing lunchboxes to almost 200,000 city office workers since 1890, earning around $200 a month. Working like a human chain, the men assemble with the food they have collected at a designated railway station and then cycle or walk to surrounding offices for delivery. A complex system of alphanumeric codes helps the largely semiliterate or illiterate workforce to collect, sort and distribute the food boxes.

Sponsored Content

About Sponsored Content This content was commissioned by Nikkei's Global Business Bureau.

Discover the all new Nikkei Asia app

  • Take your reading anywhere with offline reading functions
  • Never miss a story with breaking news alerts
  • Customize your reading experience

Nikkei Asian Review, now known as Nikkei Asia, will be the voice of the Asian Century.

Celebrate our next chapter
Free access for everyone - Sep. 30

Find out more