Category Archives: service industry

‘The Help’ in India and the Heartache of Child Labor

Movies and More Movies

My transcontinental flights, which seem to happen too often, are great for catching up on movies. This trip, if you can believe it, I saw all of these movies; in parenthesis is a quick comment, either the highlight for me or what I liked best about each:

        • The Descendents (George Clooney…of course 🙂 )
        • Moneyball (eternally loved story of the triumph of the underdog. Uh…and Brad Pitt)
        • The Artist (now that’s what I call true innovation!)
        • My Week With Marilyn (an intriguing peek into the sad life of a legend)
        • Iron Lady (Meryl Streep=Margaret Thatcher, totally interchangeable, wow!)
        • The Ides of March (political intrigue and drama)
        • Girl with a Dragon Tattoo (Now I know why everyone is reading Stieg Larsson!)

Since it was just past Oscar season, I lucked out and did not end up seeing a single bad one. And in one fell swoop, just like that, I got caught up on months worth of movies. It was time well spent.

The Help

One movie that I wanted to catch but wasn’t showing was The Help. You might have heard about it.

It is set in a small Southern town and portrays a family, their lives and their domestic help. According to IMDB, it’s about an aspiring author during the civil rights movement of the 1960s who decides to write a book detailing the African-American maids’ point of view on the white families for which they work, and the hardships they go through on a daily basis.

Given that I am from a small Southern town in the US, I could have related well to that.

A friend in India who had seen it said – “You know, it might be shocking for people in the US to see what the attitudes were of white people towards domestic help in those bad old days“. Then he added, But it’s how we treat our help in India (if not much worse)  – even today!  An insightful comment and something (sad) to think about, isn’t it?

The Help in India

Related to this, last week’s NY Times had a couple of feature articles on the recent scandal involving a Delhi couple and their alleged cruelty to their underage domestic help. When I read it, frankly, it sounded like some fictional horror story – a bit over the top on the cruelty angle (which is probably why the Times picked it up).  The couple in question has denied the charges.  Whatever evolves, it has brought the topic of servants in India to the forefront (temporarily, I am sure).

Since I was in the US at the time the story broke, I am not sure how much coverage it received in Indian media.

All of this made me think about the whole issue of living in India and servants (“domestic help” sounds so much better). One of the luxuries that I can afford and allow myself while living here is that of having domestic help to take care of all the mundane household chores every day – things that we tend to manage by ourselves in the US or use much more sparingly.

It is an advantage for me (but not them!) that the going market rate for hiring such help in Bombay is ridiculously low. And as I had written before, the service industry here is alive, well and thriving. You have some work, any work, that needs to be done? There is always someone out there who is willing and able to do the job for you.

The Seriously Young Help

But a very real issue at hand related to such help is that of child labor. India has a pathetic record – according to the same NY Times article, there are 12.6 million child laborers between 5 and 14 in this country, and about 20% of them are domestic help. I am sure all these official numbers hide a much larger, sadder real metric.

But in a country beset by poverty as this one is, how do you stop anyone from working when they have to do so just to feed themselves? You see children as pan handlers on the roads of any city, you can spot them on construction sites and of course, they are still used as domestic help. Children who should be in school getting an education are working, just so they can put something in their tummies. It’s a harrowing situation.

When someone employs them, they are technically breaking the law. But sometimes it’s hard to figure out what that really means in India. Further, is this abuse and exploitation? Or are they actually giving them a break and a way to beat their hunger?

It’s easy to criticize – but hard to find solutions that work. The government is working on finding them, several NGOs are working on them and so are international organizations – every bit helps!

Some of the information that I have found on this subject was eye-opening.  For instance:

      • 90% of the child labor in India is in rural and farm communities
      • There is an extremely widespread disparity of child labor at a state to state level
      • Kerala – the most literate state has the least percentage of child labor at 0.1% of the total in India
      • The highest number of child laborers, by far, can be found in the state of Uttar Pradesh (literacy rate: 69% and 22.9% of child labor in India is from this state!)
      • Illiterate families who are struggling to survive use their children as an alternate source of income.

The Laws and More – Are They Helping?

While the general trend of child labor is declining (thank goodness!), there is so much more that should be done. There are already numerous laws that are aimed at curbing and stopping child labor.  The underlying solution is not merely about making it illegal for children to work but making education compulsory and accessible. There is an unmistakable correlation between literacy and child labor.  

Even beyond that, a key factor that will make a difference is the general economic growth of the country. But in the meantime, ensuring that  food available to every citizen will go a long way to keeping children out of the workforce and in schools where they belong. The government has been discussing the new Food Security Bill for some time now.  Here is its promising mission:

Come on guys, make it a reality already!

While the problem can seem insurmountable when you consider the sheer scope of child labor today, at the same time, it helps to remember that this situation (as so many others in India) is a “work in progress“.  

As appalling as this issue is, when one is living in India, it’s so easy to become numb to the situation on the ground. Then, every so often you can get hit by it, such as when you see a sensational media story like the one on the Delhi couple. It can shake you up and make you wonder about the tragedy of it all, forcing you to dig into the issue to learn more about it, like I did.

Once you do, it makes you feel totally helpless, searching for light at the end of the tunnel. Not to mention, it’s a wake up call, making virtually any problems that you might personally be facing seem frivolous and trivial in comparison.

Calling Bollywood To Help

Back to the movies…

Bollywood did release a jewel of a movie on the topic of child labor last year. It was called Stanley Ka Dabba and if you have not seen it, what are you waiting for?

It showed the real life experiences of underage help in this country…and helped spread the word to its niche audience about the everyday tragedies and serious socio-cultural issues that are commonplace even to this day.

In this Bollywood-crazy country, something that appeals to an even broader audience might serve as a kind of wake up call for more people to become more aware of this tragic and widespread problem. I guess that means it needs to have a star Khan in the cast, and there’s only one of them that comes close to fitting the bill for something like this.  What do you say? You think there’ll be any takers?  How about it, Aamir?  🙂

And then (let me dream), some small fraction of that audience could actually decide to do something about this agonizing issue. It could be something as simple as pushing the government to act, or spreading the word, or working with NGOs to help.

One small step at a time would help too if there are enough people taking them.  



Photo credits

Child labor in India: By Biswarup Ganguly (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

How much do you know about the Dabbawalas of Mumbai?

They have had a documentary produced by BBC and have been featured by, among others, The NY Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes magazine, Harvard Business Review (case study), IBS (case study), The Economist and Seth Godin to name a few, but how much do you really know about the Dabbawalas of Bombay?

I am merely one more of many fascinated onlookers and this is my attempt to bring together a bit of the best that I’ve learnt about the amazing dabbawalas of Mumbai. I am also one among many bloggers who have written on this topic – without even searching very far, I quickly found about 50+ blog posts that referred to Seth Godin’s blog about dabbawalas!  What’s one more? Perhaps it will entice you to go to the source and read some more….So, here goes:

Dabbawala of Mumbai

First some facts –

A dabbawala in Mumbai carries freshly packed lunch in a box (dabba) from a person’s homes to his office.

5000 dabbawalas carry 200,000 lunch boxes every day (400,000 transactions: pick-up + drop-off), growing from a service that originated in 1890 with 100 dabbawalas.

The charge for this service is approximately $6.00. Per month!

Their error rate is an amazing 1 in 16 million transactions for which they have been recognized with Six Sigma performance (99.999999% error-free).

Their modes of transportation during their work day includes bicycles, push carts, and public trains.

They have a hub and spoke system (think Fedex) – a collecting dabbawala, and a local (delivering) dabbawala.  They have a simple color coded system that determines the destination of each lunch box.

Their use of modern technology is almost non-existent although lately they have been using SMS for convenience.

The service is virtually uninterrupted even in severe monsoon weather.

When you consider that Mumbai is one of the most densely populated and large cities in the world with a complex transportation network and huge traffic flows, you can easily see why this service would be needed and in much demand. No one wants to brave the traffic or weather at lunch!

The alternative is a fresh, hot home cooked meal brought to your office at lunch time…yummy!  So, yes, the demand for this service is easy to visualize.  But what is more amazing is that this same over-crowded, overflowing city of Mumbai is also the hub of such well-coordinated activity and flawless delivery. In fact, “amazing” as a descriptor just doesn’t cut it!

Seth Godin says –

The reported error rate is one in six million.

How is this possible? How do you create and run a service with thousand of employees, no technology and a poorly-educated workforce and have better than six sigma quality?

Simple: the dabbawallas know their customers. If they rotated the people around, it would never work. There’s trust, and along with the trust is responsibility. By creating a flat organization and building relationships, the system even survives monsoon season.

According to The NY Times

The precision and efficiency of the dabbawallas have been likened to the Internet, where packets identified by unique markers are ferried to their destination by means of a complex network.

The secret of the system is in the colored codes painted on the side of the boxes, which tell the dabbawallas where the food comes from and which railway stations it must pass through on its way to a specific office in a specific building in downtown Mumbai.

The Economist writes – 

… the 5,000-strong dabbawala collective has built up an extraordinary reputation for the speed and accuracy of its deliveries. Word of their legendary efficiency and almost flawless logistics is now spreading through the rarefied world of management consulting. Impressed by the dabbawalas’ “six-sigma” certified error rate—reportedly on the order of one mistake per 6m deliveries—management gurus and bosses are queuing up to find out how they do it.


As I said, this is fascinating stuff!  If you are too busy to check out any of these sources, take less than four minutes to see them in action in this short video or this even better longer one  at 10 minutes. It will be worth your time, I promise!


Photo: By Joe Zachs from Pune, India (The Bombay Dabawalla) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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