Wednesday, November 15, 2006

"The Dabbawalla" @ Film Kitchen

One of the great pleasures of the Film Kitchen series at Pittsburgh Fimmakers is that you never know what you are going to see there. It may be something thrown together that is slight and amusing... or alternatively it may be a piece that will teach you about something you were previously unaware of. Last night there was an hour-long documentary by local CMU professor Paul S. Goodman, about a group of workers in Bombay, India called the dabbawalla. These largely illiterate peasant men deliver dabbas (the traditional lunch boxes of Indian society) from suburban kitchens to the urban workplace.

If you are at all familiar with Indian society, then you know about the vestigial remains of a long maintained, rigid caste system, as well as the complicated dietary restrictions of Hinduism. These factors makes the lunch hour a very complex proposition for many in Bombay. Eating at a restaurant can cost from 5 to 15 times what one would pay for a home-prepared meal. And many would not consider eating food made by someone from a lower caste. For safety and preference, they prefer their wives' cooking. Bringing these meals from home has been the traditional solution. But public transportation is crowded, and few want to be encumbered by the large aluminum segmented containers in which lunches are packed in. So for 35-50 rupees (or about US $1) per month, you can get someone to pick up and deliver your lunch for you.

There are between one and two thousand dabbawalla delivering well over 100,000 lunches every workday. This system was able to grow over the last 100 years due to the reliable and efficient system of public transportation in the metropolitan Bombay area. By train, bicycle and foot, carriers bring the lunches with 99% accuracy. Most shockingly, they do so without cellphones, computers or even a formal workplace to sort the lunches. Over time they have developed a handwritten encoding system that is remarkably reliable. It is rare for them to be late in their delivery.

Fascinatingly, the growth of this occupation has been a largely organic process. Rural folk would come into the city from the farms, and in the absence of better prospects become "coolies", carrying everything imaginable. As customer bases were developed, and more relatives came looking for economic opportunity, family and village groups worked together in delivering lunches. At one time the dabbawalla worked for employers, but now they work in a self-organizing system with little central authority. Individual experienced workers build a route over time and then hire "servants" that work for them as their businesses grow. There is a union, presided over by an elected president, that resolves conflicts that arise when cooperation breaks down. The union also offers assistance during emergencies and involves itself in charity.

Goodman's film presents the plight of the dabbawalla in a straightforward and relatively balanced manner. It's clear that he is amazed by the sustainability of such a potentially chaotic undertaking. But this impression is complimented by a wide-eyed portrayal of the squalor that many of the dabbawalla are surrounded by. They make the equivalent of $100 US / month, and many of them are grateful for the demanding work, as their opportunities in a tight job market are extremely limited by their lack of education. Yet their living conditions are nothing that the average American would envy.

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