Hit by Covid-19 lockdown, dabbawalas of Mumbai get ready to don a new avatar

Failing to kickstart their iconic tiffin service after the coronavirus-induced lockdown, the famous dabbawalas of Mumbai are planning new ventures.

One of these ventures includes home delivery of fresh vegetables directly from farms.

“Association realised that it can’t continue this way and we have to find new ways for income, utilising [the] trust gained from customs over the years. Mumbai’s tiffin box suppliers association has decided to enter in the business of supplying fresh vegetables from farm to households in Mumbai,” said Mumbai’s Tiffin Box Suppliers’ Association in a statement.”

The statement added, “Dabbawalas are farmers who migrated to the city. Many of us still have agricultural land. I have toured and met 19 farmers association in Western Maharashtra who have given us support to start this business. We will supply fresh vegetables at cheaper rates to benefit both the farmers and customer. Only middlemen are benefiting from the current pricing of vegetables. We will soon make a proposal and send it to Chief Minister for permissions.”

In October, dabbawalas were allowed to travel in local trains, but, they didn’t get desired response. “Our colleagues are not allowed to enter many buildings and offices. Some clients work from home, some lost their jobs while others carry their tiffin with them to office,” said Vishu Kaldoke, spokesperson, Mumbai’s Tiffin Box Suppliers’ Association.

Of the 5,000 registered dabbawalas, only 450 members are working. Pre-Covid, each dabbawala used to deliver 20-25 tiffins a day. The number has now come down to five.

A BKC (Bandra Kurla Complex) office where 100 dabbawalas used to deliver tiffins each day, before the coronavirus pandemic, now has five to six dabbawalas only.

“Customers who were getting the tiffin till their cabin now have to walk till the gate to get it, which takes time. Hence, they have asked us to deliver it [tiffins] at the office gate or not deliver at all,” said Machindra Khengle, a dabbawala.

During the lockdown, many dabbawalas went to their villages in western Maharashtra and suffered financially. To add to the woes, Cyclone Nisarga which struck the city in June destroyed the houses of several dabbawalas. Also, unseasonal rains in November destroyed the harvest cultivated during the lockdown.

Fifty-year-old Shankar Hole has been working as a dabbawala since he was 11. He is now working part-time at a shop to make ends meet.

“My son lost his job so I have to work. We were in the village for six months and things didn’t work for us there. Due to cyclone, we suffered more losses. Back in Mumbai since a month but there is not much work available. Hence, I am working part-time at a motor parts shop where I earn Rs 200-300 per day. Due to unseasonal rains, farm is inundated. We have to come to Mumbai for a living. I have to get my children married. These are days of struggle,” Hole said.

Hole’s son Sudhir holds a diploma in civil draftsman. Fifteen days into his first job, the lockdown was imposed to check the spread of Covid-19. When he returned after the lockdown was eased, his company had shut. He didn’t even receive his salary for 15 days.

“I have started looking for work on a freelance basis. Sometimes, I regret studying. At least with no degree, I would have taken up blue-collar jobs,” said Sudhir.

Many dabbawalas, who have returned from their villages, are also employed as security guards at construction sites, while many are working as daily wagers, porters at various markets in Mumbai.

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