The Dabbawala: Informality Leveraging Formality

30 1 T Moving Rahul Mehrotra Rajesh Vora 1

The dabbawalas of Mumbai are an example of the intertwined relationship between the formal and informal city. A dabbawala (literally translated as “tiffin man”) picks up a lunch tiffin (light midday meal) from a house anywhere in the city. Then, through a complex system, he delivers the tiffin to one’s place of work by lunchtime and returns it to the house later in the day. The dabbawalas have set up an innovative network that facilitates an informal system to take advantage of a formal infrastructure. The network involves the dabba or tiffin being exchanged up to four or five times between its pickup and return to the house in the evening and travelling about 30 kilometers each way. It is estimated that approximately 200,000 boxes are delivered across the city every day, involving around 4,500 dabbawalas making 400,000 deliveries. The dabbawalas leverage community relationships and networks to deftly use the static city and its infrastructure beyond its intended margins. While the static city aspires to erase the local and re-codify it in a written “macro-moral” order, the Kinetic City carries local, often traditional, wisdom into the contemporary world without fear of the modern. These tactics have the potential to change the way we live in the city and, paradoxically, may present the most hopeful outcome for contemporary cities. This transformative urban process presents a model for new, more equitable forms of urban experience.