“In recent years, there had been no significant increase in the customer base of the 120-year-old business as the new entrants to the country"s commercial capital have different tastes and perception of food habits," Pawan G. Agrawal, president of Mumbai Dabbawala Education Centre, said.
He attributes the trend to the change in food habits, especially among youngsters who prefer fast food and snacks than homemade lunch and mass exodus of Mumbaikars to other cities across the country and overseas.
Besides, in-house eateries and restaurants established by large corporates and factories have also contributed to the stagnation in the growth of clients for the dabbawalas, known as the masters of supply chain management for their precision work in reaching the food in time to office-goers.
However, their loyal customer base continues with over two lakh customers served by 5,000 plus dabbawalas, whose average literacy rate is only eighth grade, Agrawal said.
“The main reason for the success in maintaining 99.99 per cent accuracy was that service has been inculcated as a motive stronger than claiming labour rights," Agrawal, who has made extensive research on the working of the dabbawalas, said.
In its 120 years of service, the 'dabba" business has neither witnessed a strike nor closure of activities, even in the face of inclement weather or terror strikes. The only time when they suspended work was to express solidarity for Anna Hazare"s anti-corruption movement in August 2011.
Over 25 per cent of the dabbawalas are uneducated but still do not make any slip in their efficiency, which has earned them praise from the likes of Prince Charles.
“They are teetotallers and most of them do not smoke or consume non-vegetarian food. Most of them have recently evinced interest to learn other languages and even want to become computer literates," Agrawal said.
Interacting with participants at a B-school function organised by the local chapter of CII, Agrawal also credited the excellent suburban railway network in Mumbai to the success of dabbawalas in seamless transportation of the lunch boxes criss-crossing 75-80 km every day in just three hours.
“The scheme of lunch box distribution and return of empty boxes accurately before evening cannot be replicated in other cities," he said.