In October last year, the All India Agarbathi Manufacturers’ Association donated a five-foot-tall incense stick to the Bengalee Association Bangalore for its Durga Puja pandal at the Manyata Tech Park. The AIAMA, a collective-bargaining and advocacy body that was established in 1949 and currently counts over seven hundred agarbatti manufacturers among its lifetime members, wanted to use the gesture to “celebrate womanhood and raise awareness about women workers in the agarbatti industry.”
According to Sarath Babu, the president of the AIAMA, the agarbatti industry employs over two million workers in the country. Women constitute eighty percent of the workforce, and are mainly engaged in bamboo processing, agarbatti rolling and packaging activities. Karnataka, where the cottage industry was introduced during the 1920s by the kings of Mysore, and whose forests are rich in the raw materials required, houses over sixty percent of all agarbatti manufacturers, with more than half a million women working to produce the popular Mysore agarbatti, which received a geographical-indicator tag in 2005.
Most of these women are unskilled, home-based workers, with no alternate means of income. The exploitative industry poses grave health hazards and provides insufficient wages, with no social-security benefits.
In a long, dingy room in the southwestern-Bengaluru neighbourhood of Padarayanapura one afternoon in December, 13 women were hard at work, kneading thick, shiny black dough they call “masala”—a mixture of wood-charcoal powder and a binding agent—onto thin bamboo sticks, before dusting them with nuruva—a brown powder mainly containing sawdust. The walls were lined with shelves stacked with completed agarbattis. The women work seven hours a day, for six days a week. Except for the door, there were no means of ventilation. The fans are never switched on, lest the nuruva scatter. During power cuts, the women work in the dark.
Padarayanapura and its surrounding areas were once dominated by textile mills, which employed thousands of people living in the vicinity. Once the mills closed, during the 1990s, the displaced workers were forced into unorganised labour such as agarbatti making. The women are not employed directly by the manufacturers, but hired through subcontractors known as maestries—a system of labour exploitation that dates back to colonial times. They earn Rs 35 for every thousand sticks they roll. On average, a worker rolls around two thousand agarbattis a day, making a few hundred rupees a week.