The dabbawalas (tiffin providers) of Mumbai, have earned the praise of even Prince Charles, for their indispensable service providing tiffins to many thousands in the maximum city for years. In 2003, the Prince of Wales even visited the homes of dabbawalas to find out how they have been managing this hectic job in the crowded city over the years. However, this service has been brought to a standstill by the COVID-19 pandemic, with Mumbai being one of the epicentres.
Dhyaneshwar Kanse is working as a daily wage workers these days. He goes to the corner of Kisan Nagar area in Thane to search for work. Earlier, he used to supply 28 tiffins per month. But as after the service was stopped, he was unable to find any other work. "I used to get Rs 20,000 per month as a dabbawala. But since March end, there is no work. I am not even getting Rs 5,000 since the last five months. The situation is really taking a toll on us,” he told NewsClick.
There are over 4,500 dabbewalas in Mumbai and suburban area who are without work and struggling to survive, according to the Mumbai Dabbawala Association. These dabbawalas used to provide more than two lakh tiffins per day in all parts of the city. Every dabbawala was earning around Rs 20,000-25,000 per month. But, with lockdown and pandemic, they have lost their livelihood.
Rohidas Sawant waited for one month to see if their services are restarted. But as he realised that the pandemic was not going to be over soon and there was no sign of restarting business, he went to his native house in Konkan area. "I have paddy fields here in my village. I am again getting involved in agriculture after spending 20 years in Mumbai as dabbawala. It is tough for me. We don't get as much money here in agriculture. But we don't have any other option," said Sawant.
Rohidas is lucky in the fact that at least he has ancestral property in his native village. But, Vitthal Chavan did not have any such option. He stayed back in Mumbai to search for work. These days, he is selling vegetables in Jogeshwari market. "I am earning just around Rs 5,000 monthly. Sometimes even less than that. How can we survive with such less money? Government has to allow us to travel through local trains so that we can start our service again," Vitthal told NewsClick, explaining his hardship.
Also read: Ignored in Lieu of Mumbai, Thane Poses Serious Concern in COVID-19 Battle
The Association has demanded to include their service under category of essential services so that they can get aboard the Mumbai locals. The local service has been resumed since June 8, however, only for essential services like government employees and medical services employees. In such a situation, the dabbawalas have been left in the lurch, as travelling by hired vehicles is not an affordable option.
"Our demand was once even discussed by the state cabinet. But there is no decision yet. We request the government to consider and take a quick decision fast so that dabbawalas would get some amount of work," said the president of Association, Subhash Talekar.
Earlier, the Maharashtra government had announced the transfer of Rs 5,000 (in two installments) to labourers in the unorganised sector. But they gave money mainly to real estate sector's registered labourers. Labourers from several other sectors, including dabbawalas, could benefit from this scheme. As such, the Association has requested to include 4,500 dabbawalas under this scheme. "If the government is not allowing us to travel through train then they should at least give us Rs 5,000 under the government scheme. It will help our colleagues somehow," said Talekar.
Even though most of the offices in Mumbai and its suburban areas are working in just 15% of its total employee capacity, the dabbawalas still hope that they will be able to earn enough to survive.
Also read: COVID-19: Maha Govt Refuses to Allow Hawkers, Unions Mull Protest