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The Dabbawallas Program Description | BACK TO INDEX


Throughout the world, work is a central part of our lives. This documentary captures an unusual form of work in India. Each day in Mumbai (Bombay), India, a city of more than 16 million, people called Dabbawallas move lunches from peoples’ homes to their work places. Dabba means box, and walla means person. The metal box holds the freshly made lunch from home.

This process is very complicated and large in scale. More than 100,000 lunches get moved every day by about 4,000 Dabbawallas. The lunch boxes are picked up at the homes and brought to a first sorting place. Then, they are moved to another location – often by train – and resorted. After a series of moves and sortings, the boxes eventually reach the customers. All these occur in the morning – sometime between 8:30 and 1:00. Then the process is reversed. The boxes are picked up in the places of work and eventually brought home. The striking feature of this process of collecting, sorting, and delivery is that it is as complicated as what we see being done on a daily basis by companies like Federal Express, but this process operates with no computers, technology, or modern-day business procedures. The interesting questions are: How does this large scale and complicated sorting and delivery process work? Why has it persisted for more than 100 years? The underlying themes of the film are (a) what people in more- developed countries can learn from workers in less-developed countries, (b) the reliance upon human and social ingenuity for organizing rather than relying on external mechanisms such as technology, and (c) according respect for the seldom-heard voices of disadvantaged populations in the world.

The video explores this question at a number of different levels. We describe a typical day of a Dabbawalla. We go to the homes where the food is prepared and then picked up by the Dabbawalla. We follow the Dabbawalla on his bike until he gets to the sorting place, where his co-workers are actively involved in moving boxes from one place to another. We ride on the train in the special car designed for the Dabbawallas, and follow them through more sorting until the lunch boxes are delivered to the customer. At another level, we interview the customers about why they use this service, the Dabbawallas about their life, and the people who help manage this complicated sorting and delivery process.

As the video unfolds, the viewer should understand not only what these people do, but perhaps more important, why this very large scale and complicated system has worked for 100 years. Some of the mechanisms that will emerge from this video include all the Dabbawallas come from the same city. In order to become a member of this organization, they need to buy a position in the organization the same way that someone may buy a seat on the stock exchange. The organization for which the Dabbawallas work has a banking system. This facilitates them buying a seat or membership in the organization. It also creates ties in the organization. In addition, during the interviews, we will learn about a court system that exists to adjudicate disputes among the Dabbawallas. These and other forms of human and social ingenuity emerge in the work of the Dabbawallas on the streets in Bombay.

The film also serves as a counterpoint. Instead of asking how knowledge in developing countries can help less developed countries, this film focuses on how developed countries can learn from less developed countries.

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