Mumbai has 150,000 licensed taxi drivers. It has 5,000 dabbawalas, organized porters who carry cooked lunches to office workers. The former, along with about 450,000 auto-rickshaw (three-wheeler taxi) drivers, are constantly in the news for reports of bad behavior, overcharging and even violence. The dabbawalas, on the other hand, are icons of efficiency. They have even made it to the Harvard Business Review as a case study.

Taxis are vital to the city, as public buses cannot cope with rider demand. Mumbai’s local trains transport more than 6 million people each day, according to figures provided by the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation (MSRDC). At the station of embarkation from the local train, many commuters take a share-a-cab (four to a taxi) to reach their final destination. Anthony Quadros, president of the Mumbai Taximen’s Union, estimates that there are 1.2 million regular taxi users in Mumbai. In this city, nothing is certain but death and taxis.

The dabbawalas don’t have an equivalent in other cities. The 100-year-old organization takes cooked food from people’s homes and supply centers (which could be a housewife-turned-home entrepreneur) and delivers the meals to offices. In this realm, a mistake carries stiff consequences, particularly because religion dictates which foods many people can or can’t eat. But the dabbawalas are very close to a no-mistake regime and they have built a great deal of trust.

“The dabbawalas even carry forgotten spectacles and mobile phones,” says Pawan Agrawal, CEO of the Mumbai Dabbawala Education Centre, an offshoot of the Dabbawala Association. “Sometimes, customers even send home their salary with the empty tiffin box. That’s customer service.” Agrawal, who is a spokesperson for the dabbawalas and has done a study on the group’s logistics and supply chain management efforts, says that the number of customers in Mumbai has crossed 200,000.

On a superficial level, the two cohorts seem to have a lot in common. Both come from marginalized and oppressed socio-economic groups. Their average education is up to the eighth grade. They belong to a low-skill, working class category and service the city’s middle class. Why, then, are the two groups’ reputations so radically distinct?  

“The difference stems from the difference in their cultural backgrounds,” says Ramesh Kamble, a professor of sociology at Mumbai University. In India, there are still some professions that are dominated by certain communities. In many Indian cities — Delhi and Kolkata, for instance — taxis are run by owner-operators and there traditionally was a preponderance of turbaned Sikhs from Punjab. Today, particularly in Mumbai where the people tend to be a shade more entrepreneurial and adventurous, many of those drivers have moved away, some to the U.S. and Canada.

In Mumbai, most of the taxi drivers are now migrants from the north Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh (UP). This springs into public consciousness every time the parochial political parties in the state start a “Maharashtra for Maharashtrians” campaign. The first target of the agitating mobs is often the taxi driver. The dabbawallas, on the other hand, belong. According to Agrawal, all but six of the 5,000 dabbawalas come from a particular community of Maharashtrians.

“North India is extremely feudal, with a hierarchical and patriarchal culture. Reclaiming that culture becomes necessary to find space in that group at the place of migration,” says Kamble. “However, in Maharashtra, since the 1920s we have had various kinds of movements, such as the textile workers’ movement, the Dalit [low caste] movement and the feminist movement. The dabbawalas are also deeply influenced by the Bhakti [devotion] movement. Their efficiency is not entirely a management marvel; it is rooted in their cultural values. The same work ethic exists among porters at Mumbai’s railway stations because these working classes have similar cultural contexts.”

But not all seem to agree with the cultural hypothesis. Stefan H. Thomke, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and author of a case study titled, “The Dabbawala System: On Time Delivery, Every Time,” believes that while the fact that new members are recruited from 30 villages in and around Pune contributes to the organization’s performance, there are many other critical factors that reinforce each other and must be considered. “Most importantly, the dabbawala’s performance can only be understood if we study the entire system — their culture, management, organization and processes — and how these factors interact with each other,” Thomke notes. “You cannot copy one single factor … and hope to replicate performance without regard to others.”

The dabbawalas themselves say that the charge of being a non-inclusive organization is misplaced. Most people believe that you need to belong to the Warkari Sampraday (loosely translated as the Pilgrim Group) to be a dabbawala. Not true, according to Agrawal. The only recruitment criterion is a “guarantee” — essentially, a verbal assurance of the candidate’s character — by an existing member. “Most people tend to refer their friends or family members who belong to the same community. It has just worked out like that.”

Advantages of Community

But Agrawal says having employees from the same community has several benefits. “Our values, inclinations and psychology are similar. So there is better understanding and teamwork,” he notes. “It doesn’t require talent; it’s just common sense. We wouldn’t be Six-Sigma certified without that coordination. In fact, since we began with one customer and one dabba [lunchbox] in 1890, this has become almost like a family business.”

Quadros of the taxi drivers’ union says the one-community culture makes it easier for leaders to manage and retain their employees. “We don’t have that kind of control over our taxi drivers. It’s very difficult, especially with the newer generation…. They drive taxis for about five to 10 years, earn what they can and then do something else. They have no interest in the taxi trade or helping to improve it. The dabbawalas are not migrants; that helps.”

But Varsha Ayyar, an assistant professor in the School of Management and Labor Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), notes that even migrant groups have a sense of community. There is also a tendency to join the same profession when they come into a city. Working with others from the same village gives migrants a sense of security when they first arrive. They help to get them a job; a construction worker would be most cognizant of vacancies in his field, for example. And they act as informal mentors, particularly when the newcomer is a relative. In Mumbai, there is a large area known as Sonar Bangla in which illegal Bangladeshis have settled. They number several hundred thousand and tend to stick together.

Migration doesn’t explain everything, continues Ayyar. “The difference is that dabbawalas have more of a sense of autonomy and accountability. The system itself demands that,” she says. “Taxi drivers [in Mumbai] are often not owners of the taxis; there is no sense of ownership and they have to make a minimum amount of money each day, even if it means tampering with the meter.” According to Quadros, taxi drivers are vulnerable. If a driver parks illegally, or merely in the wrong spot, to drop off or pick up a passenger, he often has to bribe the police if caught. Regular extortion for real or imagined transgressions means that drivers must earn more than what is registered on the meter. Fights with passengers, who often know what the exact fare should be, are inevitable. And this adds to the atmosphere of acrimony.

Sense of Social Coherence

But Bino Paul GD, an associate professor at the TISS School of Management and Labor Studies, attributes part of the culture of the dabbawalas to their tremendous sense of social coherence with the city — they live with their families, eat home-cooked meals and lead respectable lives. “Those factors are more important than community. Taxi drivers have none of these advantages. That seriously affects their morale,” says Paul. Taxi drivers often live in slums with 10 or 15 people to a room. Working conditions are tough — as mentioned earlier, among the toughest in the world. They don’t have parking space or restrooms. “A lot of them belong to religious minorities,” notes Paul. “They lead anonymous, invisible lives compared to the dabbawalas.”

Then why become a taxi driver at all? That’s a question that could be asked in any large city. “Reservation wage,” says Paul, using a theory from labor economics. “That is the market wage below which people won’t enter the labor force. The reservation wage of Maharashtrians is much higher than that of taxi drivers. Also, there are push and pull factors that facilitate migration. Poverty is a major push factor.”

It’s a tough life. Taxi drivers work 12 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week. They make around US$60 to US$100 a month. Dabbawalas work nine hours a day, six days a week and make US$160 to $US180 a month. They supplement that income by US$80 to US$100 per month doing other jobs, such as delivering newspapers or milk. Some are also part-time taxi drivers. “For [dabbawalas], work is worship,” Agrawal says, citing the group’s credo, “We believe that by serving food, we are serving God. We don’t work for money.”

For the taxi driver, money is a key frustration. “[If a driver doesn’t get enough fares], he gets angry,” Quadros notes, adding that the formula for calculating taxi fares has not been revised by the government since 1996.The taxi drivers’ job, by its very nature, means moving from place to place. Toward the end of a shift, the driver has to maneuver to get back where he started from. In Mumbai, taxis are on the roads 24 hours a day, with one driver replacing the other when his duty is over. The dabbawala on the other hand has a fixed route; his schedule is as regular as a newspaper carrier’s. He can tell you where he will be at any given time. The regularity makes for discipline, experts say.

But what about the sheer numbers of taxi drivers as compared with the dabbawalas? Does this have anything to do with their group behavior? Paul of TISS does not think so. “That there are so many more taxi drivers than dabbawalas is not relevant to how well they are able to enforce discipline. When it comes to property rights in terms of ownership or control over vehicles, power lies in a few hands. There are a few [people] that regulate the whole activity, a collective of some interest.” According to Paul, whether it is taxi drivers or dabbawalas, power structures exist within both organizations. The only difference, he points out, is that dabbawalas have a more formal power structure that is known to everybody. In the case of taxi drivers, there are multi-stakeholder informal power structures.

Is there anything that the taxi drivers can learn from the dabbawalas? Harvard’s Thomke views the groups’ divergent behavior as a nature vs. nurture battle. “I believe that nature is one input, among many inputs, but it is the nurture — or the system — that explains excellent service performance.” While he is unfamiliar with the Mumbai taxi trade, Thomke suggests a thought experiment: if the dabbawalas were to run the taxi system, what would they change?

Agrawal says that the taxi drivers’ basic organizational structure should be reconsidered. The dabbawalas have several hundred group leaders that are the core of the organization. Each heads groups of 10 to 25 members and is responsible for all their activities. “How can one leader control and be responsible for thousands of drivers?” asks Agrawal. “They should make groups of 20 to 30 drivers reporting to a leader who can properly manage them and inculcate values of honesty and efficiency.”

But Quadros doesn’t think that approach will work. “It is difficult to imbibe the best practices of the dabbawalas,” he says. “Even if I hold a meeting, very few people will show up.”