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Share My Dabba: How Mumbai dabbawallahs will help feed street kids

One of the most disturbing dichotomies of a fast growing metropolitan city like Mumbai is the unequal distribution of wealth, privileges and even civic amenities. As the Share My Dabba video indicates, to 1.6 million people who have lunch everyday in Mumbai from the dabbawallahs, there are close to 200,000 street and slum children who go without food for days. An economic divide like that doesn't seem to even lend itself to solutions thought up by personal enterprises. However, the Happy Life Welfare society decided to give it a shot and that's how the Share My Dabba initiative took off.

A screengrab from the Share My Dabba video.

A screengrab from the Share My Dabba video.

"A friend of mine suggested that reaching out to the dabbawallahs to help feed street children could be an idea that can work. So we discussed this at our NGO and then advertising agency McCann came on board to help us figure out the strategy. Following that we got in touch with the south Mumabai leg of The Dabbawallah Foundation. They were more than willing to help us out," says Kanupriya Singh, vice president of the Happy Life Welfare Society which has taken up initiatives like 'Spread some Warmth' and 'Share your Wealth' in the past.

The process of sharing the dabbas took off in south Mumbai around Crawford Market a few weeks back. In between, it was suspended for a few days following the LBT strike. Volunteers from the organisation went around shops, markets, offices etc in south Mumbai talking to people working there and familiarising them with the idea of sharing their lunch.

"The stickers were distributed. Whoever wanted to share his/her lunch put a sticker on their dabba. We didn't want to disturb the time management system that the dabbawallahs have. So, our volunteers reached the point where dabbawallahs assemble after having collected the tiffin boxes post lunch. There we empty the food and give them to the children," says Singh.

Initially, the volunteers came armed with paper plates and plastic bags to transfer the food from the tiffin carriers and give them to the street children. "We had to figure out a point where the children could come and get the food from, so we went to the nearby slums and spoke to the kids and their families. We told them about the distribution point. Now, the children turn up with their own utensils. Our volunteers serve the food from the dabbas to the kids. All this has to work with clockwork precision as the dabbawallahs can't afford to be a second late," says Singh.

So the whole distribution process is completed in some 15 minutes which the dabbawallahs take to assemble, arrange the tiffin boxes and leave.

Singh has no qualms in admitting that the process is difficult and needs scrupulous planning. "Firstly, while all the dabbawallahs have been very welcoming, they work through various unions, so you have to work through them. Secondly, you can't afford to disturb their schedule, so you need several hands and work fast to distribute the shared food. Then you have to go and talk to people - shopkeepers, workers, office goers etc - to make them want to share the dabba, involve them in the process. The children from the slums and streets will also be talked to. The process has to be repeated every time the initiative is introduced in a new part of the city," says Singh. Right now, the organisation is working on flagging off the Share My Dabba initiative in Malad, Mumbai.

There has been a fair amount of criticism that the campaign has faced too. A lot of people have gone out on Facebook slamming the campaign for trying to hurt the dignity of the poor by having them eat messy, left over food. While a lot of that apprehension is addressed by Singh's explanation of the process of food distribution, she says that there is little reason to feel outraged.

"We are not dumping leftovers on these children. We are not emptying every dabba out for these kids. We presume that the people who will willingly share their tiffin will have the basic humane-ness to not send off messy, unclean food. As of now, the food that has been sent to be shared didn't come across as any of that," says Singh.

"Tonnes of food get wasted everyday. That amount of food can feed hundreds of children. That is the potential we are trying to work on," adds Singh.

Ever since the video went viral on the internet, several individuals have offered to help. However, there are problems of having an individual participate like that. "The person has to get in touch with us, then with the tiffin provider in his office and maybe then he can be included in the process," Singh explains.

Till then, we can keep our fingers crossed that the initiative succeeds and can be expanded.

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