India's oldest food delivery service threatened by pandemic

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Philippe Leblanc

MUMBAI, India – The second wave of the pandemic is sweeping over India, which is now the main outbreak site on the planet. The country has been setting records for new daily cases almost every day for the past two weeks. Due to the curfew and health restrictions, the pandemic also threatens the dabbawalas, which are the city's oldest food delivery service.

They are less numerous today, but before the pandemic, up to 5,000 bicycle delivery men from modest backgrounds would collect food prepared at home and then bring it to the workplace. They are called dabbawalas.

Wearing his white dabbawala hat, Urjit weaves his way through the cars of the congested city center on his bicycle. He walks the streets every morning to collect lunch boxes. It has been his daily life for 14 years.

I'm used to it all, he said, it's a snap. I can't stand still when I'm not working on my bike.

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Bicycles and commuter trains for delivery

The world's oldest food delivery system is 125 years old. Unlike their modern competitors, dabbawalas continue to deliver home-cooked meals rather than restaurant meals.

For 800 rupees per month, or about $ 14, a client receives his lunch box every day at the office in Greater Mumbai.

The vast network of commuter trains, normally crowded before the pandemic, is a vital part of life in the region. It is also an important link in the dabbawala system. After being collected, the lunch boxes are assembled at the train station, delivered to their destination station and then collected by other delivery people.

a woman hands a bag to a man at the doorstep.

India's oldest food delivery service threatened by pandemic

Photo: Radio-Canada / Maxime Beauchemin

A lady hands two gray fabric lunch boxes to Urjit. She made cauliflower and peas in sauce for an uncle who left for work very early.

My food is healthier than restaurant food, she says.

Using dabbawalas for religious reasons

In a huge country where the population has learned to live with its many religious and social differences, some people call on the dabbawalas to ensure that they respect the dietary restrictions imposed by their religion or caste.

Dishes on a desk.

Urjit picked up some home-cooked meals and then brought them to his client's workplace.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Maxime Beauchemin

A businessman receives his box in his export clothing business. He is a follower of the Jain religion. He is therefore vegetarian, but cannot consume any vegetables grown under the ground.

<q data-attributes = "{" lang ": {" value ":" fr "," label ":" Français "}," value ": {" html ":" Not all restaurants serve as the right food for me, ”he said, unwrapping his packaged food in metal containers. I have been using dabbawalas for 35years old and I ate the same meal every noon. This is what I love and what keeps me healthy. "," Text ":" Not all restaurants serve the right food for me, "he said, unwrapping his packaged foods in plastic containers. metal. I have been using dabbawalas for 35 years and have eaten the same meal every noon. This is what I love and what keeps me healthy. "}}" Lang = "en”>Not all restaurants serve the right food for me, he says, unwrapping his packaged foods in metal containers. I have been using dabbawalas for 35 years and have eaten the same meal every noon. This is what I love and what keeps me healthy.

When Harvard University studies the dabbawala model

Harvard University views the dabbawala system as a model of logistical organization. Delivery people make less than 3.4 mistakes per million transactions. Before the pandemic, the dabbawalas made more than 200,000 transactions per day, which translates to around 400 delivery errors or delays per year.

<q data-attributes = "{" lang ": {" value ":" fr "," label ":" Français "}," value ": {" html ":" I happen to make a mistake, admit candidly Urjit, but I almost always have time to correct it the same day. We must deliver the meals to destination between 13h and 14h. "," text ":" I do happen to make a mistake, Urjit admits candidly, but I almost always have time to correct it the same day. We must deliver the meals to destination between 1:00 p.m. and 2:00 p.m. "}}" lang = "fr”>I do make a mistake, Urjit candidly admits, but I almost always have time to correct it the same day. We must deliver meals to our destination between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m.

Urjit explains that delivery people know their customers and follow a very simple code to the letter, no need for a mobile app. On each lunch box, you can read the train stations of origin and destination, the number of the building where the meal will be delivered as well as the personal code of the delivery person.

A service decimated by the pandemic

Like many businesses around the world, those in the dabbawalas are threatened by the pandemic.

Urjit now receives half of his pre-pandemic salary since fewer workers go to their place of employment. He had to change his lifestyle at home to adjust to his new reality and he fears for his health.

I wear my mask at all times and wash my hands before meeting each client, he said.

He is one of the lucky ones who still has a job. Of the 250 delivery men who worked in his neighborhood, near the Grant Road train station, only 40 remain.

The oldest food delivery system is hoping to revive itself by adding services. Home delivery of farm products could be a lifeline.


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