Battered by cyclone, coronavirus, Mumbai's dabbawalas struggle to find work
The 125-year-old lunchbox delivery system of Mumbai's dabbawalas has suffered a crushing blow amid the coronavirus outbreak. Rendered jobless due to the outbreak and the lockdown, the dabbawalas have now burnt through most of their savings and struggle to put food on the table. For some, the recent impact of Cyclone Nisarga even destroyed their homes and their food stocks with it.
Mumbai's dabbawala system constitutes a workforce of around 5,000 men that deliver home-cooked meals on foot or by bicycle to people at work. Before the lockdown, the dabbawalas made on-time deliveries to around 2 lakh persons every day. This busy system was graded "Six Sigma" by the Harvard Business School in 2010, i.e., the dabbawalas make fewer than 3.4 mistakes per 10 lakh deliveries.
Mumbai has reported nearly 50,000 COVID-19 cases and 1,638 deaths. The city also continues to be under lockdown as the state of Maharashtra has extended it till June 30. The state government has, however, come up with its own plan—'Mission Begin Again'—to slowly start reopening. With the risk of virus transmission and the curbs, work is hard to come by.
Under 'Mission Begin Again', private offices are allowed to resume work with only 10% of the workforce. Many offices are reluctant to allow entry to "outsiders" due to the pandemic, Mumbai Mirror reported. The shutdown of local train services has further limited the dabbawalas' delivery system. Many dabbawalas are on the hunt for other jobs, but employment has taken a hit during these times.
President of the Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Ramdas Karvande told the Mirror that customers had assured them that orders will be placed once offices reopen. Karvande, who has since moved to his village in Maval taluka of Pune, said that it is a "long shot."
Other dabbawalas have been impacted by Cyclone Nisarga with many living without electricity or mobile connectivity. 28-year-old Vishal Khape had to receive seven stitches on his leg as the cyclone damaged his roof and an asbestos sheet fell on his leg. Khape—who has delivered dabbas in Malad for six years—said his food grains, cattle fodder have been soaked and his fields are flooded.
Vitthal Muke (30) of Khed taluka, Pune, told the Mirror his family has suffered a setback of Rs. 50,000. He had been delivering tiffins for the last 15 years. His wife has also lost her job as domestic help. Nisarga damaged the family's grain reserves of a year and cattle grasslands. His village hasn't had electricity or access to mobile network since the cyclone.
Smita Thackeray's Mukkti Foundation has been trying to help with food supplies and financial support. However, Thackeray told the Mirror, "Their suffering is so widespread that efforts are not enough. I appealed to my friends and acquaintances to help. Some are sending contributions directly."
Ganesh Gaikwad (36) of Borivali said he and his brother, both dabbawalas, are now desperately hunting for other jobs. "The savings are gone. I am looking for a watchman or laborer's job, whatever I can find," he said, unsure that his dabba clients will return due to the risk of infection. "I never dreamed that the dabba business will see such a tough time."