Mumbai: Baban Walanj, 70, was in the business of transporting ‘dabbas’ (lunchboxes) from Dahisar to Churchgate along with 22 colleagues, including his six brothers, before the Covid-induced lockdown changed his life.
Before the pandemic struck, around 5,000 dabbawalas of Mumbai worked in nearly 200 teams comprising 20 to 25 individuals each. These organised workers were drawn from the 20 to 65 age group, with the most experienced ones acting as supervisors, in addition to making their own deliveries.
The lockdown shut the business of delivering tiffin boxes completely. Like other dabbawalas, Walanj and his brothers were rendered jobless.
“Before the lockdown, we used to supply around 1.5 lakh lunchboxes in the city. Today, those of our team in Mumbai are supplying not more than 3,000 tiffin boxes. Of the 5,000 dabbawalas, only 450 are delivering now, that too just five to six tiffin boxes each,” said Walanj.
Although a septuagenarian, Walanj needs a job to survive. As the prospects of finding a job in Mumbai were almost nil, Walanj began exploring other options. And what better place than home, the village he had left decades ago to work in Mumbai.
Pimpri village is located around 130km from Pune district headquarters. The village is known for its picturesque setting and rich natural assets, surrounded by hills on all sides. A nearby dense forest, known as ‘Andharban’ is a favourite location for trekkers and tourists.
The huge Sahyadri mountain range, along with the Mulshi dam and several historical forts in the vicinity, are also tourist magnets.
Factoring in the above, Walanj started a small hotel that he named Chaitanyatej in his village, which now provides a livelihood to him and three of his brothers. The other three are back in Mumbai, but only one is working as a dabbawala. One brother operates a taxi, while another works in a courier company.
Apart from the hotel, he has also started offering a jungle tour with night accommodation in tents, which has become popular with trekkers. It has become a popular getaway for many people from Pune and elsewhere to celebrate their holidays or weekends at Chaitanyatej, where they get special homemade meals. From here, they can trek to Tamhani Ghat, Kundalika Valley, Devkund, Kailasgad, Ghangad, Koraigad and the Andharban jungle.
Walanj and his family provide all the facilities and guidance to tourists coming to Pimpri to enjoy nature and experience the thrill of trekking.
For almost 50 years, Walanj had been delivering lunchboxes in Mumbai, along with his family members. But now, he is happy to be home. “I may visit Mumbai again but never for work,” he says.
The Mumbai Dabbawala Association says Walanj has set an example for other dabbawalas, who are struggling for their livelihood. What is extraordinary about Walanj is that he chose a new vocation at an age when most people tend to give up, says the association.
But the problem of dabbawalas is much deeper, says Subhash Talekar, president, Mumbai Dabbawala Association. “Of the thousands who worked as dabbawalas in Mumbai, fewer than 500 are back in the business. Many have left for their villages or are unemployed. Of those who remained back, most are working as vegetable vendors, labourers, auto or taxi drivers or home delivery boys,” Talekar said.