BY QUAID NAJMI
Mumbai, Oct 8 (IANS) The combined side-effects of Covid-19 and the long lockdown may have dealt a deadly blow to Mumbai’s Dabbawalas — the world-renowned 130-year-old tribe of tiffin-box carriers.
When the Dabbawalas were permitted to board the Mumbai suburban trains from Wednesday, hardly a 100 turned up to get the special passes for resuming their essential services — shocking many.
Worse, of the 5,000-odd Dabbawalas, barely 500 have reluctantly agreed to return to their 13-decades old trade even after things normalize, said top leaders of Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust (NMTBSCT) and Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Association (MTBSA).
“Yes, this is the grim reality… These 100-odd able-bodied Dabbawalas were already doing short runs on motorcycles in the past few months for survival, and now they have shifted to the local trains. Less than 500 more have responded to our requests to rejoin the business,” NMTBSCT and MTBSA official spokesperson Ritesh S. Andre told IANS.
The reasons for their apparent disinterest are both convincing and distressing, but point to a bleak future for the unpretentious Dabbawalas.
A majority of the Dabbawalas comprised migrants, hailing mostly from Pune and other districts of western Maharashtra, who have gone back to their native villages since the lockdown started on March 24-25.
“They are now working in local factories, MIDCs, farming, vending agro-products, or doing small jobs for survival, which they don’t want to abandon and return to Mumbai’s rough and tough life,” said NMTBSCT President Ulhas S. Muke.
MTBSA President Ramdas B. Karvande said that of the 5,000 Dabbawalas, nearly 45 per cent are above 45-50 years old, around 25 per cent are below 25 years age and the rest in the 25-45 age range.
“The youngsters are educated and don’t want to join their family business… They are trying for jobs in private companies, government departments or launching small entrepreneurship. Those in the upper age group are worried about Corona infections and are refusing. That leaves us with barely one-third of our strength to continue the job,” Karvande explained.
Launched modestly in 1890, the Dabbawalas business peaked from the 1970s-2000s, but by the 2010s, they were battered by the mushrooming online and private food delivery services.
Post-Corona, the Dabbawalas have to contend with other jolting developments, shaking their never-say-die spirits further.
“Many government offices and private companies have now beefed up their staff canteens and offer good food at reasonable rates to their staffers, further cutting into our business by over two-thirds,” rued Andre.
The trio said many families they served faithfully since decades are now shy of renewing their contracts mainly due to “Corona risk” concerns arising out of the Dabbawalas handling their tiffin boxes twice daily — from home to office to home — changing hands at many locations en route.
Both Muke and Karvande are perturbed over the future of Dabbawalas and their unique trade, which has attracted and excited royalty around the world, made them media darlings on the planet, the subject of courses at top global universities, themes for films, documentaries, books, comics, etc.
“We cannot predict how long we shall survive… The need of the hour is innovation, hugging modern technology and aggressive marketing. But for this, we also need resources and guidance,” said Andre.
For starters, in the past few years, the NMTBSCT and MTBSA joined hands with around 125 community kitchens and transported their tiffins to people in every nook and corner of Mumbai.
“Most people are unaware that they can get a regular meal tiffin starting from Rs 80 to gourmet or specialized meals for up to Rs 450. We deliver anywhere… As Unlockdown phases began, we resumed serving around two dozen community kitchens,” Andre revealed.
The NMTBS and MTBSA (email@example.com) now explore community kitchen tie-ups with various corporates, big government or private offices, schools, colleges, hospitals and other institutions in a desperate bid to ensure the humble Dabbawalas don’t fade into history.
(Quaid Najmi can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org)