Mumbai’s 130-year old cycle couriers

© Scott McLeod

Every morning workers at one of the most reliable, effective and revered delivery companies gets on their bikes and sets about servicing the culinary needs of hundreds of thousands. The city is Mumbai, the consignments are lunches and the company is a fascinating example of how bicycles can transcend the advances of time and the crammed streets of India’s most populous city.

Instantly, when you think of the place, whether you’ve been there or not, I suspect the first instinct is to conjure streets and roads overflowing with colourfully clad people and vehicles. It’s not an obvious place for cyclists to thrive in the sense that it’s hot, the train and the car play hugely important roles in the working life of a city that’s constantly on the move.

But the Dabbawalas aren’t like your average cyclists. They are a group of some 5,000 (and growing) delivery experts whom, by foot, train and bicycle, transport lunches made at homes to office workers in town.

Distinct by their white-capped uniforms, legend goes that Dabbawalas have to turn up to work on their first day with two bicycles, enough money to buy their white hat and a cart to wheel around the containers that the lunches are stored in.

The deal that the Mumbai population loves so much amount to around $10 a month and guarantees delivery of a hot lunch to their place of work on time.

What makes them stand out though is their legendary record of virtually never missing a delivery deadline.  A failure rate of next to nothing, so the reputation goes.

Which, when you think about the challenges of the unreliable transport infrastructure, the potential hazards and traffic that stand between every Dabbawala and his destination, is outrageously impressive. One argument that crops up is that because every Dabbawala is a shareholder in his company and the management structure is relatively flat, every rider has his own stake in his success – leading to a highly motivated force of deliverymen with almost preternatural skills of navigation.

Bikes are, in some ways, the hidden weapon here. Avoiding traffic, changing routes quickly where necessary and generally relying on your own steam and durability – these guys are couriers par excellence, even if their wheels are more workhorse than shiny stallion.

In an industry that lives and dies by its service record, there’s a lesson for larger, more technologically pro-active companies – the bicycle is advanced as it needs to help a business to keep a spotless record. And in an age of cloud computing, 3D printing and ‘Six Sigma’ business practices, that’s rather wonderful.

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