BANGALORE: Kusuma, 25, sits outside her small house in Okalipuram, rolling agarbattis. When she greets you, you can see that her hands are dark. She lets out a cough and says, "Even the mucus I spit out is black."
Kusuma rolls nearly 2,000 agarbattis every day. Chronic backache and knee pain are routine problems in her life. "There are times when I can't walk straight because of my back pain. And for some time, I have had this cough, which refuses to go away," she says.
Most women in her neighbourhood are employed similarly—they roll 1,000-2,000 agarbattis every day for a meagre Rs 25. Many sit for hours without a break to finish more batches.
Punya, who suffers from chronic back pain, says,“I have household chores to do, too. I have to cook for my family. But I can't afford to take a break."
Okhalipuram, Mahalakshmir Layout, Banashankari and Srirampura are the neighbourhoods where many agarbatti workers reside.
Most women work right outside their homes in cramped colonies and slums. They don't have any access to health benefits offered by the government.
The job demands them to squat for long hours. This leads to serious urinary tract infections and fever. "I find it very difficult to pass urine. I also experience a severe burning sensation,” says Mariama, who has been rolling agarbattis for five years. "At least once a month I get fever. I go to the doctor who orders rest but one day of not working means less food in the house. None of us can afford that luxury,"she says.
Gynaecologist Dr Prakash Mehta from Mahaveer Jain Hospital says it is a common problem among women in this industry.
"They touch these harmful chemicals every day. Also their genitals are exposed to the chemical because of the way they sit. They don't take regular breaks and this adds to the problem," he explains.
Manufacturers say agarbatti rolling mostly falls in the unorganised sector.
"Workers employed in factories form the organised sector while the ones who roll agarbattis at home form the unorganised sector. Those who give out work to the slum women use cheap material, and sell it to local manufacturers," says a manufacturer. He adds that women prefer doing this work since it lets them have flexible timings.
The government finds it difficult to reach out to all workers and offer them health insurance cover.
"Since the workers are not registered anywhere, the government can't check whether they are eligible for benefits. Women working in our factory do get health benefits, though," he says.
Unions which work towards the upliftment of these workers say that they are underpaid and get no health benefits. "There are more than one lakh agarbatti makers in the city, with most of them being women and in some cases children. None of them are registered or have any contact with factory owners and don't even know that they are eligible for benefits," says Radha, general secretary, Karnataka Construction and Unorganised Workers Union. "Low wages is an issue tormenting the entire sector, but in the agarbatti industry health also becomes an issue. But the government doesn't seem interested in their condition," she says.
Reports state that the three main ingredients in agarbattis are dust, charcoal and an adhesive called jigit. While manufacturers say that they are chemical-free, doctors confirm that they have high percentage of chemicals which lead to the resultant health problems.