‘Life has come to a halt’ say Mumbai’s famous lunchmen as coronavirus wrecks trade

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A health worker wearing protective gear collects a swab sample from a resident during a COBID-19 coronavirus screening at a civic clinic in Dharavi slums, in Mumbai.


A health worker wearing protective gear collects a swab sample from a resident during a COBID-19 coronavirus screening at a civic clinic in Dharavi slums, in Mumbai.

Indranil Mukher/AFP via Getty Images

The famed ‘Dabbawalas’ or lunchbox delivery men of Mumbai who used to deliver 200 000 lunches by bicycle every day, say a loss of customers due to the coronavirus pandemic has destroyed their income and driven them to the brink of survival.

The 130-year-old delivery network has seen business plunge by nearly 90% with many offices in the country’s financial capital Mumbai still closed.

Dabbawalas are mostly semi-literate deliverymen from rural areas who collect hot lunches from customers’ often distant homes and, using a low-tech but reliable delivery system and overladen bicycles, carry them to offices and schools across the city.

“It feels like life has come to a halt. So many changes have taken place (during the pandemic) that out of 5 000 Dabbawalas only 450-500 are working because customers are very few,” said Vishnu Karduke, a lunchman and spokesperson of their union.

The delivery system was the primary source of income for 5 000 men and their families who lost their income overnight when Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered a nationwide lockdown in March 2020.

“People are doing any job they can get… some have taken up farming while some have become construction labourers. And those who had rented homes in Mumbai fled from the city (during lockdown) and never returned,” added Karduke.

Dabbawalas used to earn around 20 000 rupees ($267.08) a month but now struggle to earn even 5 000 in Mumbai, India’s financial capital and worst-hit city in the pandemic.

The surrounding state of Maharashtra earlier this week imposed stringent curbs on industry and e-commerce and ordered establishments to close.

“The income drop is a huge problem for us, as we have children to look after at home,” said Vitthal Rao, who said he had never seen such difficult times in 25 years of service.

He urged the state government to provide financial assistance as it does to other sectors hit by the pandemic.

Britain’s Prince Charles visited the dabbawalas during a visit to India in 2003 and even invited some of the lunchmen to his wedding with Camilla Parker Bowles in Windsor two years later. ($1 = 74.8850 Indian rupees)

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