Condition of Agarbatti Workers in Bangalore

A Child Worker in an Unlicensed Agarbatti Unit

The incense stick (or popularly known as Agarbatti in India) used in every devout Hindu households for religious purposes, is today a highly marketed commodity both in India & abroad. But not much thought seems to have gone into how these agarbattis are produced or manufactured. With limited infrastructure such as a wooden board, availability of raw materials & with little amount of skill, virtually any unskilled worker can make agarbatti in any household or sheds.

The fact that manufacturing can be any household or a shed involving a few workers, is something exploited by the companies that sell agarbattis under various brands. Although agarbatti industry falls under the Factory Act in Karnataka, many of the manufacturing units are poor households in slums which do not come under the purview of any labor laws as many of the units are unregistered units. It is estimated that there are around 250,000 workers engaged in the Bangalore – Mysore region alone, which is the highest in the country.

In a place called Ullau in the outskirts of Bangalore, all the workers are women & even involving children, belonging to either poor Muslim or dalit households. Most of these women have taken up this profession due to their extremely miserable conditions & trapped by traditions to be confined within the house to do household chores or look after children.

Earning anywhere between Rs. 20 – Rs. 22 for every 1000 sticks (piece rate basis) & depending on the type of agarbatti they produce, a single worker can earn anywhere between Rs. 100 – Rs. 120 a day if she labors for 9 – 10 hrs. a day. Given the highly inflationary situation in the country at present, the amount these workers earn is pittance compared to the rate at which it is sold in the market ar Rs. 1.00 – Rs. 1.50 to even Rs. 50 a piece (!) depending on the type & flows directly from the highly skewed model of development under capitalist globalization that pushed many poor households into such higly informal home based work due to lack of employment in the formal sector.

While companies do not directly contract the work to the workers but is usually done through middlemen, there is distinct lack of employee – employer relationship & most women are are under no obligation to meet targets or deadlines with enough freedom to produce according to their capacities. But given their poverty ridden conditions, most women labor as any other factory worker as this is their only means of livelihood that is sustaining their families today.

The problems of these workers are not confined to wages & lack of social security alone, their working conditions remain extremely dismal. Confined to dark dingy rooms without proper ventilation & lack of provision of safety gear, health hazards pose a serious risks. The common health problems that these women face include body pain & pain in the limbs due to the repetitive nature of work, skin & dust allergy allergy, gynecological problems such as abdominal pain, irregular menstruation, urinary problems & white discharge. But studies are yet to determine clear linkages between working conditions & health risks.

The agarbatti production process does not end in the households, which in fact constitutes only 10% of the total cost of the final product including raw materials. The rest 90% cost goes into perfuming (which is usually a trade secret), packaging & marketing of the brand, most of the non household based work are confined to factory premises, which are governed by labor laws.

The conditions of those workers working in licensed agarbatti manufacturing units is no better. The only difference being women receive a fixed salary & are entitled to namesake social benefits such as Provident fund (PF), Employee State Insurance (ESI) scheme, bonuses, pension etc. Most of these social benefits hardly meet the criteria for decent living standards. ESI continues to be corrupt institution with workers assessing benefits only by bribing the staff & treatment services provided under ESI run hospitals or clinics are at best second rate.

No doubt the consciousness of the workers remain low especially those working in household or unregistered units, as most of them are not even considered workers but as housewives doing part time work, by not only the govt. but also the major trade unions. Any attempt to demand increase in wages or social security results in either the middlemen threating to shift the unit elsewhere as there no dearth of labor available & desperate situation of these women leads most of them to succumb to the middleman’s threats. Also middlemen act as kind of moneylender providing loans to the workers & many workers fear losing the good graces of the middleman, as many of them remain perpetually indebted to him.

Given the significantly large number of population engaged in home based work, with estimates up to 50 million workers engaged in the entire South Asia, it becomes imperative for those fighting for minimum demands such as minimum wages, provisions of social security net as stipulated by the govt., it becomes important to question the minimum wages or social security measures being currently given by the govt. A radically different social measures are required that not only addresses the poverty stricken conditions of these workers but radically redefines who controls the institutions of labor, welfare & governance, & puts them firmly under the control of workers & trade unions, which is the only guarantee to achieving a decent employment, a living wage & social security.

Anand Kumar


Home Based Agarbatti Workers at Ullal, Bangalore
  • The inconspicuous agarbathi was an invention in the 12th century, a spin off from the ‘yagna’ and ‘havan’ rituals which used an assortment of fragrant woods, oils, and medicinal herbs, ostensibly to please the gods, to reach their abodes through prayers, transmitted through smoke, and to render the environment aseptic and clean, and the devotee in the right frame of mind for focused prayer! The ingredients were carefully and scientifically chosen for their effect, the impact on the environment, the devotee and the gods! Recent research and findings do corroborate some of these effects, and the logic and science behind these ‘havan’ compositions! Brave attempts were made, as recent as the late 50s, to stick to this original process, with vendors in the vicinity of Avenue Road, offering a mind boggling array of natural and forest based ingredients, for such unique and complex agarbathies, with these inherited traditions being the preserve of only a few families, who mastered this art and offered specially crafted sticks, the technology guarded well, and passed on to a select few families.  The advent of modern perfumery, and hundreds of post independent businessmen, most of them ignorant of this rich, creative past, changed all of this. Agarbathies became simplistic, with just charcoal, wood, and a binding gum being the basic ingredients, and a liquid perfume, into which these were dipped and dried, made up the profile of the modern agarbathi! Fragrance was the dominant profile, while tradition, science, history and knowledge were all lost. Sadly, with this advent, the essence, the principle, and the ‘raison de etre’ of the ancient ‘havan’ stick, or the ancient ‘minature’ yagna stick vanished overnight. Zealous manufacturers, with network, marketing, and resources, captured the markets over the next few decades, and the indian agarbathi was soon selling in 120 countries over the world. Even MNCs, who have the means, the capacity, and access to knowledge, to revive this ancient and creative art, have confined their nationally networked manufacturing to the ‘cheapest’ possible agarbathies, to gain volume and market share at any cost! Qualities are compromised, and advertising serves to pull the wool over the consumer’s eyes!  Today, the agarbathi has undergone a sea change, with hundreds of manufacturers all over the country, and even in several asian countries, with raw materials and formulations of their own, and prices ranging from as low as Rs. 2 a pack to even Rs. 100 a pack, of 10 sticks. The quality, or the lack of it, and price, just as in several FMCG products, spreads over an unbelievable wide range, to meet every consumer’s need, and every pocket. Quality is self or un-regulated, and related to the manufacturer’s knowledge and experience, his learning about the behaviour of the ingredients used, respect for the environment, his consumers, and the willingness to implicitly apply known industry guidelines, and international regulatory advice, on the restriction, limitation, use and application of all raw materials. As in every industry, there are as many wonderful products, as there are obnoxious products, and we cannot tar them all with the same brush.  All burning components, particularly charcoal, and wood, produce a range of PACs (Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons), Carbon Monoxide, Carbon Dioxide and a range of complex compounds, many of which have been determined to affect health. But the report and research of Gillings Uni. is both misleading, and even mischievous. Humans have a tolerance to everything around them, including the ability to assimilate and absorb, and food, water, air, etc., all essential for survival, become deadly and dangerous, when contaminated, and when this tolerance and thresh hold limit is exceeded. Polluting airborne particles, including those emanating from smoke, all have a ‘ppm’ density number, below which it is ineffective, and above it, depending on the levels, it begins posing health problems. 
    To give you an example, an unventilated or poorly ventilated fireplace, that uses about 4 to 5 kilos of charcoal can produce as much CO and CO2 and other gases as several thousand cigarettes. Likewise, the level of such noxious and dangerous gaseous components exceed 30 ppm at high and dense traffic intersections, well above the 0 to 6 ppm level, which is normal in a non smoker’s house without such fumes. What is crucial and relevant to such studies is the precise composition of the material before burning, as there are thousands of varieties with infinite compositions, the environmental conditions during the period of study, and the detailed formulation of the material (bakhoor, in this case) under study, etc. Bakhoor, the subject of this research, quite different from and unlike an agarbathi, is a mixture of fragrant, and some questionable ingredients such as ‘banned’ nitro musks, liberally sprinkled over embers of 100% charcoal, and the smoke is expected to fill the room. 
    An agarbathi is generally about 0.8 to 1.0 gram in weight, has about 0.2 gms of perfume, 0.3 gms, of bamboo, and 0.2 each of binding gum and charcoal, with a few other ingredients in smaller proportions. It is highly unlikely that this minuscule and small stick that weighs less than a gram, when burnt in a reasonably well ventilated place, will pose any danger whatsoever to health, and warrants serious changes to domestic lifestyle, and religious practice. Nevertheless, an independent and detailed study is essential to bear out these assumptions and satisfy the industry, and the consumers, and preserve our environment as well. 
    Having said this much, and while this applies to a majority of the manufacturers, there can be no denying that there are industries that use banned or restricted chemicals, with ingredients that are questionable and pose hazards, even in minuscule quantities, and there is an emergent need for the industry to self regulate, and prescribe standards for themselves, and ensure GMP through all their processes.
    Warm regards.
    Vijayakumar K.,
    Managing Director,
    Vigirom Chem. P. Ltd.