Fashioning out the fragrance of devotion

Zubeida (name changed on request), who is around 35 years old was busy rolling incense sticks (agarbathi), while her two daughters looked on. She is a single parent and the only earning member of the family. Her sole source of income is from making incense sticks. ‘‘In our community, working women are frowned upon, but this unit is near my home and after finishing my chores, I come here to work,’’ she says.  

Jyothi, a 29-year-old woman, is quite efficient at her job. She rolls the incense sticks quickly and without a break, as she answers the questions. “I prefer this job because of the flexible timings. In the afternoons, I can go home and feed my children and fetch water from the corporation tank. I am able to earn about 6,000 a month, which takes care of my personal expenses. The more we roll, the more we earn,’’ she says.  

For Rukmini, the earnings from the job help her bear her daughters’ college expenses. 

To make ends meet

These are some of the common scenes in the incense stick factories in Mysuru. The women who work here are from low-income backgrounds. The workers have a small wooden table placed in front of them, which they use to roll the sticks. Beside them lies the incense mixture and wooden powder (or sticks). Many times there are children who help their mothers in rolling these sticks. On the other side, we have a bundle of incense sticks left to dry and their aroma fills the room. 

Ravikumar runs one such incense stick manufacturing unit in Udayagiri. He says that he ensures 280 days of employment per year to the women. There is a flexibility in terms of working hours and the close proximity of their homes to the unit makes it easy on the women. ‘’In between, they discontinue their work without informing us, but whenever they come here we give work to them,’’ says Ravikumar. A 60 year-old-lady comes to this unit for work. No one is there to take care of her. She earns her livelihood by rolling agarbathis and there is no age limit or particular skills required in the industry.’’

Mohammed Nurullah runs his unit in Kyathamaranahalli. He is physically challenged and has a diploma in Electronics and Communication. Despite other opportunities, he has chosen to continue the unit as it is a source of employment for many women. ‘‘They prefer to work in handmade units as there is a flexibility of time as opposed to working with machines with fixed working hours,’’ he says.  

The agarbathi industries have transformed the lives of both rural and urban women. It empowers them economically.’’ Through their work here they earn an additional amount and save it in self-help groups,” says Prema, an owner of the unit in Palahalli. 

According to data provided by AIAMA (All India Agarbathi Manufacturers Association), there are over 600 units of manufacturing in the State, of which 400 are small entities. There are about eight to 10 lakh women employed in these units.  

This is an unorganised sector and workers are hired on contract basis and are unaware of the fixed minimum wages for them. ‘‘The industry is dominated by women workers from poor families living in slums. Although the government has fixed minimum wage for the agarbathi workers and other facilities, they are not aware of the government facilities meant for them. They also do not have the time to fight for their rights,’’ says H S Jagadish, principal secretary, Mysuru District Industries Labour Association. “Our efforts to organise them were in vain. Owners have a control over them and they won’t allow them to organise. And, owners are not ready to consider these agarbathi rollers as their employees,’’ he adds.

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Fashioning out the fragrance of devotion

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