The last time Keshav Jadhav, 35, delivered a lunch box (dabba) on his cycle on March 22, little did he know that it wouldn’t happen again for the next six months. Jadhav, a dabbawala, who lives in a 10×10 room in a chawl complex in Borivali, has been out of work ever since the lockdown was implemented in the city due to rising Covid-19 cases.
As he returned to Mumbai from his hometown in Sangli last week, he first headed to the station to fetch his cycle. “Since we were all out of work with offices shut and trains suspended, many of us returned to our hometowns. Our cycles were still parked outside the railway station, but are in a poor condition now due to heavy rains,” said a distraught Jadhav.
On Saturday, the Mumbai Dabbawala Association (MDA) appealed to people to donate cycles as they could not afford to pay the maintenance costs of their rusted cycles once work begins. The association has also been demanding the central government to start regular local trains or allow dabbawalas into the essential services category. They will submit a written request to that effect on Saturday.
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Subhash Talekar, president, MDA, said with business being at a standstill, dabbawalas, once acclaimed across the world for their professionalism and precision in delivering food, are staring at an uncertain future.
“Over the last 6 months, the community has faced a lot of hardships. With local trains remaining shut for so many months, we have no source of income. Many have taken odd jobs like driving auto-rickshaws, gardening etc. to make ends meet. We are thus requesting the government to at least allow us to travel by train. We will take all the necessary precautions and use sanitisers, masks and gloves while delivering dabbas,” he added.
Talekar said that even when things reopen, they might still have to struggle to start work. “Our cycles have not been used for so long now as business is closed. Besides, many dabbawalas have gone to their hometowns and thus once they come back, they might have to spend Rs. 7,000 to 8,000 to get them fixed,” he said.
A Borivali-based dabbawala said many from the community are forced to move to other means of earning as there is uncertainty around their work.
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“The state government has said things will open in a phased manner. While hotels, offices and everything else is operating, why are dabbawalas, who are considered as the city’s lifeline, not allowed to work? Especially in the current situation wherein people prefer home food due to the risk involved in outside food, our job is very important,” he added. With many corporates introducing work from home policies for their employees, the future seems dismal.
Nearly 5,000 dabbawalas are working in the city who deliver meals to people daily. Known for their timely and accurate food deliveries, Mumbai’s dabbawalas have been used as a case study in several management institutes. In 2003, when Prince Charles met a few members of the community, he lauded their work. Ever since, the dabbawalas have always been in the limelight. With the growing uncertainty around the nature of work and the utility of tiffins in future however, the community is now clueless about what the future holds.