Mumbai’s 5,000-odd dabbawalas have finally got what they were waiting for months.
According to the latest unlock guidelines issued by the Maharashtra government on Wednesday, they can now travel in local trains. But returning from the longest break in the city’s 130-year-old history of tiffin delivery services will not be easy. To begin again, the delivery men now have to grapple with reduced demand, limited access to customers and rusted bicycles.
In its latest ‘Mission Begin Again’ notification, the government has directed dabbawalas to procure QR codes from the Mumbai Police commissioner to access railway stations and trains, like persons engaged in other exempted services.
Mumbai Dabbawala Association President Subhash Talekar said he will visit the police commissioner’s office in Crawford Market on Friday to understand how to go about procuring QR Codes for his colleagues. “We have already received permission from the Railways. I do not even know what a QR Code is and whether one needs a smartphone to receive it,” he added.
A senior police officer said the department has begun formulating a procedure to facilitate the return of dabbawalas to public transport.
Talekar said the closure of schools and colleges means that half of the dabbawalas’ daily customers will continue to remain inaccessible. “Before the lockdown, an average dabbawala used to earn Rs 15,000 a month for delivering 15 tiffins. Now, it has come down to four tiffins a day. How is he expected to survive in Mumbai on a salary of Rs 4,000?” he said.
Over the last few months, the association had pleaded with the Railways to allow them to use local trains, appealed to the state government to provide each member with financial aid of Rs 5,000 and also approached the Maharashtra State Human Rights Commission and MNS chief Raj Thackeray for relief.
Talekar said that the first thing dabbawalas will have to do after being granted QR codes is to buy new bicycles. “Our bicycles have been parked in the open, outside railway stations, for the last six months. They have rusted and been damaged beyond repair during the rains. One will now have to spend at least Rs 6,000 to buy a new bicycle,” he added.
In relay race terms, the bicycle is both the first runner and the anchor who completes the sprint and the tiffin the baton. A tiffin changes several hands and travels through at least two modes of transport in its journey from the kitchen of a customer to the destination – either a school, college, office or shop.
Individual dabbawalas travel to homes of customers every morning on bicycles to pick up packed meals and cycle to stations to drop the tiffins off to colleagues. The tiffins are then loaded on to long metal racks and stored in the luggage compartments of local trains. At each destination station on the Western, Central and Harbour lines, tiffins are passed on to other dabbawalas who make lunch-time deliveries on their bicycles.
Ever since the government allowed shops and offices to open with a limited number of employees in June, dabbawalas have been making a small number of deliveries on bicycles, but only on short routes in central and south Mumbai.
Talekar said the resumption of service would depend on the access his colleagues receive to their customers. “Many housing societies do not allow outsiders, including dabbawalas, to enter fearing the spread of Covid-19. Many of our customers are afraid of sending meals to their loved ones fearing that we may infect them. We need our customers to have faith in us at this time,” he added.
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