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Last Updated: Friday, 27 August, 2004, 07:44 GMT 08:44 UK
Hot lunch - a tiffin lady's burden

By Jayshree Bajoria
BBC correspondent in Bombay

Laxmibai Bagade with her lunch boxes
Laxmibai is part of a huge logistical exercise
Every morning Laxmibai Bagade collects hot home-made lunches made in the homes of office-goers in the western city of Bombay (Mumbai) - then she has to get them to the hungry office workers on time.

She is one of the few women among the city's estimated 5,000 tiffin carriers - locally known as dabbawallahs - who deliver some 175,000 lunch boxes daily. It is a century-old tradition.

"Tiffin" is an old English word which means midday snack.

A unique tracking system ensures that all the lunch boxes reach their rightful owners in time, earning a rating of 99.99% for precision and accuracy from Forbes magazine.

That's one error in 10,000 deliveries.

Man's world

In a predominantly male trade, 45-year-old Laxmibai is a rarity walking the streets with 25 kg of lunch boxes slung around her lean shoulders.

After lunch hour, she has to pick up the boxes again and return them to the homes.

Laxmibai Bagade
I am old and tired. I fall ill easily, my feet swell up with all this walking
Laxmibai Bagade

Laxmibai became a tiffin carrier some 20 years ago and joined her husband in the same trade to keep the home fires burning.

Her tough job coupled with the burden of housework and the responsibility of looking after a large family has taken its toll on Laxmibai, who earns $85 a month.

"I also have to take care of all the household chores. How much can one person do?'' she asks.

But she is grateful for her son, Krishna, who has taken most of the load off her shoulders.

"For years my mother has delivered scores of lunch boxes but now I have taken over most of them, so that she may get a little rest."

Godsend

The chief of the tiffin carriers' association, Raghunath Medge, says that women do not take up the job voluntarily.

"It is very physically demanding. This is not a job for women. They can't pick up so much weight. A typical consignment of boxes weighs around 80 to 90 kg. So we give them less weight to carry, almost half of what men carry," he says.

Laxmibai Bagade making a delivery
The service is fast, courteous and efficient

For the city's housewives, tiffin carriers like Laxmibai are a godsend.

Komal Shah has been using her services to send her husband's lunch for almost a decade now.

"If I have to prepare the lunch for my husband by the time he leaves for office, I will have to get up very early.

"Also, I have small kids who make demands on my time in the morning. So it suits me to send the tiffin through Laxmibai as it gives me a couple of hours more to cook," she says.

Office-goers, too, have come to rely on their hot lunches arriving from home every day on time.

Komal's husband, Sujal, a diamond merchant, says: "We have become used to it. We know that the tiffins will be there when we sit down to have lunch."

The efficiency and punctuality of the tiffin carriers in the city has become the subject of study in business schools and industry associations.

The Prince of Wales paid them a visit during his trip to India last year.

Raghunath Medge says that Prince Charles' visit has helped business immensely. "People give us more respect now. It has made us famous," he says.


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