Bitter Ashes

The exploitative practices of the agarbatti industry

A black layer clings to the workers’ hands, often obscuring cuts from splinters in the sticks. karen dias for the caravan
01 July, 2019

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.

A 29-year-old woman, who asked not to be named, was hard at work as her youngest son played by her side. She had enrolled him in a nearby Urdu-medium government school. “The school is asking me to pay Rs 500 for his uniform,” she told me. “I have paid Rs 250 in instalments so far. I will slowly pay the remaining money too. But every week they scold him and send him to the unit for money or to fetch me.” Like many of her co-workers, she was already in debt with her maestry, so could not ask him for money for the uniform. For the past week, her son had refused to go to school, so she had to bring him along to work.

Thirty-five-year-old Reshma Banu lives with her husband and six children in a third-floor home in Padarayanapura. The staircase inside her building was dark, even though it was a sunny day. The one-room house had a cot, a television and two plastic chairs, with hardly any space for movement. There were no windows.

Banu rolls agarbattis at home. Once the children leave for school and her husband for work, she receives the raw materials from a shop on her street, moves the chairs onto the cot and begins work on the floor. She receives Rs 30 for every 1,000 sticks—five rupees less than the women at the unit. Her daughters help her after school. She returns the completed agarbattis to the shop the next morning.

Her cramped accommodation precluded other sources of income, Banu told me. “I can attach falls to saris and do stone work on them, but I don’t have enough space for that at home. And what if my children spill something and ruin the sari?”

Because of the long hours of work in places with inadequate ventilation, the women face grave occupational health hazards. They suffer from knee, neck and back pains from sitting in the same posture for hours. “The stress induced from upright posture leads to degenerative process and strain,” Dr Shaik Abdul Nayeem, a general physician at a popular low-cost clinic in the neighbourhood, told me.

Prolonged exposure to toxic raw materials and dust causes respiratory problems. The women, Nayeem said, constantly suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, bronchitis, asthma and emphysema. They also often suffer blisters, and their hands sometimes swell. Nayeem added that the heat-inducing nature of the raw materials causes urinary-tract infections and irregular menstrual cycles.

Looking through the black layer clinging to the women’s palms, I could see multiple cuts caused by the bamboo sticks. “Machine-made sticks are smooth, but handmade sticks have splinters,” one of the workers told me. Every evening, she said, she removes the splinters using a pin. If the cuts are too deep, she bandages them. “I cannot stop rolling because of the cuts,” she added. “This is my only source of income.” The worker, who is 36 years old, said that she was now used to the chronic back pain. Besides, she could not afford medicines—a course of antibiotics can cost more than a day’s wages—and visited the doctor only in extreme situations.

Nayeem said that awareness could mitigate the extent of the health issues. “Making them realise the importance of regularly washing hands, wearing a mask and gloves will reduce the risks.” The women, however, rued that gloves reduced their speed, and thus their earnings.

The workers are covered under various central and state labour regulations, which entitle them to minimum wages and social-security schemes. According to the 2018–19 minimum-wage notification issued by the Karnataka government, agarbatti rollers should receive between Rs 43 and Rs 49 per 1,000 sticks, with a variable dearness allowance of Rs 61.20 per day.

“These women belong to the category of unorganised workers and their entitlements are laid down in law,” Tanvi NS, a labour lawyer, told me. “But the women have no knowledge of either their entitlements, or on how to realise and enforce these entitlements. Existence of a law doesn’t mean that it gets implemented. This is where a workers’ union can step in and force the employer to follow the law.”

Isaac Arun Selva, a slum activist, told me that attempts at unionisation have failed because of the nature of the industry. “Constituting a board like the Construction Workers Welfare Board and giving them ID cards upon registration will give them access to social-security schemes,” he said. After parliament passed the Unorganised Workers Social Security Act in 2008, a state social-security board was set up in Karnataka. The board identified 144 eligible sectors, including agarbatti rolling, but the lack of comprehensive data on such workers has impeded the effective implementation of the law.

“Instead of institution- and industry-based unions, region-specific unions must be formed to increase the bargaining power of the downtrodden,” VJK Nair, a vice-president of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, told me. “These workers don’t need empathy and charity.” He said that at least sixty percent of the profits manufacturers make should go to the workers. “That is social justice.”

In 1991, Nair had attempted to form a union among the agarbatti rollers, but the Bangalore Jila Agarbatti Karmikara Sangha was only successful for the first six months of its existence, before starting to disintegrate. “An organisation can grow only through a sustained movement,” he said. “There cannot be a revolution without revolutionaries and visionaries. The women have to take charge. And when they do, that will be true empowerment.”

If the AIAMA really wants to celebrate the women who work in the industry, its members need to look beyond five-foot-tall token gestures and give the women their due.