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Last Updated: Monday, 24 July 2006, 20:37 GMT 21:37 UK
India's tiffinwalas fuel economy
By Karishma Vaswani
Business correspondent, BBC News, Mumbai

Dhondu Chaudhary
Mr Chaudhary is a master at timekeeping
Every morning, 65-year-old Dhondu Chaudhary picks up a lunchbox from Arpana Rao's home in the suburbs of Mumbai.

Mrs Rao relies on Mr Chaudhary to get her husband's daily lunch delivered to Mumbai's financial district where he works.

That is about an hour away from her home - and looking after her new baby means she barely has time for herself, let alone find the time to deliver a tiffin, or lunchbox, to her husband's office.

That is where Mr Chaudhary comes in.

He has to deliver Mr Rao's home cooked meal to his office in town.

For this service, he charges her $5 (2.70) a month. Each month he makes about $80 from Mrs Rao and other customers.

Punctuality is key

Braving bad weather, ill health and long hours, Mr Chaudhary's work ethic is exemplary.

"The most important thing for us is to be on time," he says while rushing along.

Lunch box delivery sorting centre
The tiffinwalas' sorting procedure has made them famous

"I've got to be at the next home in 15 minutes so I can pick up their lunchbox and get to the train station.

"If we are late with the lunchboxes then office workers don't get their lunch, and we lose money. By lunchtime everyone should have their tiffin."

Mr Chaudhary is one of Mumbai's legendary lunchbox carriers.

Known as tiffinwalas, there are 5,000 of them.

They deliver 200,000 tiffins a day travelling by train, balancing dozens of lunchboxes precariously on their heads.

With a unique blend of teamwork, efficiency and an unparalleled dedication to punctuality, they are an integral part of the city's ability to function as a dynamic financial metropolis.

Few mistakes

An hour later, the tiffinwalas arrive in the heart of Mumbai, at Churchgate Train station.

Battling the city's infamous traffic, they start sorting through thousands of deliveries.

It is this sorting procedure that has made them so famous.

Lunch box deliveries
The hot lunch deliveries help fuel the Indian economy

Each lunchbox is marked with a set of numbers and colours to denote where it should go.

Business schools have studied their supply chain methods.

Some of the tiffinwalas have even given lectures on how other firms can copy their system.

They say they only make one mistake per six million deliveries.

Fuel for the economy

The lunchbox carriers of Mumbai have been using this sorting system for over a century.

It is a technology that has not changed since its inception.

But now, in an attempt to boost awareness about their service they are going a little bit more high tech.

They tiffinwalas have set up a website and an SMS service to increase customer numbers.

This has come as a surprise to many, as many of the lunchbox carriers are illiterate.

Savvy about their business and finance as they are, very few of them have even heard of the internet.

The new technology has been built for them by a software engineer Manish Tripathi who has been adopted as an honorary tiffinwala.

Software engineer Manish Tripathi
Software engineer Manish Tripathi has brought the tiffinwalas online

"When people move to Mumbai for work, and need a lunchbox carrier, who do they ask?" he says.

"They ask their friends, or their neighbour.

"Now, they just need to go the website and they can find out how to get in touch with us. They can also get in touch with us via SMS."

The move online has been a great success.

"We get 10 to 15 enquiries more a day via SMS and the website," Mr Tripathi says.

Back in Mumbai's financial district, Mrs Rao's husband's lunchbox has been delivered on time, as it is daily.

Mr Rao is one of the millions of office going workers who keep Mumbai's economy running.

And its the precision of Mumbai's lunchbox carriers that keep him and his colleagues well fed.

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