Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 17, July 2008

Women and Children Workers
in the Old City of Hyderabad[1]

Rekha Pande

  1. Like most South Asian countries, India is characterised by the involvement of a large proportion of the population, primarily women, in the informal labour sectors. Many of these are home based workers whose difficulties are exacerbated by very low wages, involuntary migration, the need to enter into other allied activities, and poverty. Furthermore, it is women in this sector who carry the double burden of poverty and discrimination. The present paper looks at bangle and agarbatti (incense stick) making—two trades in the Old City of Hyderabad, India—which can be characterised as home based work in the informal sector. Particular attention is given to the exploitation of workers involved in these trades and the invisibility of their work. I conclude by discussing various actions that need to be taken to empower the women involved.

    The Home Based Worker
  2. India has a labour force of over four hundred million people working in the informal sector, a large proportion of whom are women. The informal sector in India is broadly characterised by units engaged in the production of goods and services with the primary objective of generating employment and income. However, unlike the formal sector, labour relations, where they exist, are based mostly on casual employment, kinship, or personal and social relations, rather than contractual arrangements with formal guarantees.
  3. Over the past few decades the Indian economy has enjoyed an average annual gross domestic product growth rate of about 6.5 percent. However, since this GDP growth was capital and information intensive, it was not able to generate growth at the same rate in the formal wage sector.[2] Hence most of the jobs created were for self-employed, casual or home based workers in the informal economy. This sector is characterised by ease of entry, reliance on indigenous sources, family ownership of enterprises, small scale of operation, intensive labour and adapted technology, workers with skills acquired outside the formal school system, and an unregulated and competitive market.[3] Since workers in the sector are dispersed and outside organised labour networks they generally have poor bargaining power. Employment is often seasonal which also means that workers are subject to periods of no work at all. The lack of formal employer-employee relationships in the informal labour sector has a negative impact on both wage rates and the security of workers. As a result, the many women working in this sector suffer from a lack of opportunity to work, low and discriminatory wages, and exploitative conditions resulting in casualisation. They further lack social security, face occupational health hazards, and do not have access to new technologies, skills or knowledge. Though not a homogeneous group by way of caste, class or economic activity, deprivation and discrimination are common factors experienced by all workers in this sector. The Shram Shakti report of the National Commission for Self-Employed Women and Women in the Informal Sector, submitted in June 1988, was a landmark in the struggle for home based workers' rights. This report underlined the critical contribution of marginalised poor women, in both rural and urban areas, to the growth of the formal economy. Recommendations not only pointed to the need for the recognition of home based workers as a category in the collection of official statistics but also called for enlarging the definition of women workers in subsequent data collection exercises. Several suggestions were given on how to improve the living conditions of self-employed women, including home based workers, in the informal sector. The Shram Shakti report strongly advocated ownership and control over productive resources for poor working women as a proven formula for a qualitative improvement in the women's living conditions.[4]
  4. Most women in India work and contribute to the economy in one form or another, often combining paid and domestic work such as cleaning, shopping, cooking, child care, care of the elderly and emotional labour. However, much of their paid work is not documented or accounted for in official statistics. The fact that women do this work in conjunction with unpaid domestic work results in it being undervalued and often classified as 'subsidiary activities.' The greatest difficulty for women with this kind of double working day is finding the time for both types of work. Women working in the informal sector report being constantly pressed for time and feeling that their quality of life is greatly diminished by the need to shoulder both paid work and family demands.[5] Employers in the informal sector, on the other hand, enjoy tremendous advantages in the absence of overhead costs or the need to invest in tools or machinery. Furthermore, since there are no trade unions and partially no legislation defining workers rights or requiring welfare measures, minimum wages or social security benefits, employers have almost total control in these respects. In fact, wages in the sector are so low that every family member is called upon to assist in some aspect of production in many home based industries. This leads to large-scale child labour in these areas.[6]
  5. Estimates of the size, contribution, and composition of the informal sector vary widely according to the size of enterprises considered, the inclusion or otherwise of agriculture, and the degree of women's informal work included in calculations. In India, the term 'informal sector' does not appear in official statistics nor in the National Accounts Statistics (NAS). The terms used in the Indian NAS are 'organised' and 'unorganised' sectors. The organised sector comprises enterprises for which statistical data are available from official budget documents or reports. Alternatively, the unorganised sector refers to those enterprises whose activities or collection of data is not regulated under any legal provision or which do not maintain any regular accounts. The informal sector can, therefore, be considered as a sub-set of the unorganised sector. Hence, it is very difficult to get statistics about either men or women workers in the unorganised sector, because there are no statistics or estimates in any official records. As a result, most of the work performed in this sector is invisible. According to a 1999–2000 study conducted by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO), out of a total workforce in India of 397 million, only 28 million workers are employed in the organised sector with the remainder working in the unorganised sector.[7] However, more recent 2005 figures, compiled by the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector (NCEUS) convened in September 2004 under the chairmanship of Dr. Arjun Sengupta, put the total number of workers in India at 457.5 million with an estimated 92 percent (422.6 million) being in the unorganised sector. Of these, 256.1 million were in agriculture with 166.5 million engaged in non-agricultural activities.[8] Many workers in the latter group are home based workers.
  6. Home based work is not an analytical category. Nor does it constitute a sector such as agriculture. Instead, complex relations of production and distribution are characterised by the producer being neither wage worker nor self employed but something in between. The legal definition of worker and self employed in India is drawn from western liberal assumptions of an autonomous and self-contained individual, a concept which cannot be applied adequately to home based producers.[9] This difficulty is exacerbated by the fact that the employment status of the home based worker can be positioned anywhere along a continuum of dependence. Some are completely independent while others are fully dependent on contractors and agents for designs, raw material and equipment and thus lack any power to negotiate the price of the items produced. However, fundamentally, home based workers can be divided into three categories: 1. independent producer, 2. dependent producer who works at home but who relies on a subcontractor for raw material, or 3. wage worker who works on the premises of her employer.[10] No matter which group they belong to, all women engaged in home based work are socially and economically insecure, in poor health due to working in inadequate conditions, and subject to voicelessness. These women belong to numerous occupational groups scattered all over the country pursuing economic activities from generation to generation without formal schooling and with diffuse employer–employee relationships. They are dependent on agents and contractors for the supply of raw materials and the sale of finished products, and also receive low wages for their lengthy working days. These are common experiences shared by all the women workers in the Old City of Hyderabad.

    Macro economic polices and their impact on home-based workers
  7. In the 1960s, India undertook a planned economy aimed at expanding employment opportunities, the bulk of which were to be in the unorganised labour sectors. Production in large units was now replaced by several intermediate stages of production conducted in various small units.[11] At this time (1960s), in India, there was an emphasis on welfare for women. However, the Fifth Five Year Plan (1974–79) saw a shift from welfare to development. The Eighth Five Year Plan (1992–97) promised to ensure that the benefits of development from different sectors did not bypass women. This eighth plan was expected to improve productivity, bring about greater equality and alleviate poverty. However these outcomes did not eventuate. In the early 1990s, India saw a number of reforms implemented in the industrial and trade sector. Trade reforms encompassed the abolition of non-tariff barriers, the reduction of peak tariff rates and the lifting of qualitative restrictions on trade, with the exception of consumer goods and agricultural commodities.[12] In the wake of the debt crisis, India adopted the New Economic Policy in 1991 as an essential part of the Structural Adjustment Policy urged by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank which had given substantial loans to India to tide the country over the crisis. It was believed that the measures adopted would assist India to overcome its foreign exchange deficits, encourage foreign investments and strengthen the balance of payments. The globalisation of trade and commerce was part of this package. Human development in India prior to this was negatively characterised by low levels of attainment and sharp regional and gender disparities. By 1993, it was recognised that India lagged behind many other Asian countries in key human development indicators such as life expectancy and medical care, nutrition, infant and child mortality, adult literacy, school enrolment ratios and disparities in the distribution of global economic resources and opportunities.[13]
  8. With globalisation there was more and more privatisation with the State withdrawing further from economic intervention. This leads to the disturbing question regarding who is responsible for protecting the interests of the poor and underprivileged. In the shift from welfare development to economic development those who have suffered most have been women, because a large number of them are in the informal sector.[14] The new growth-oriented policies have taken away whatever control women had over traditional occupations and denied them better avenues of employment. This is because markets, resources and labour in developing countries are dominated through trade, aid and technology transfer by rich nations, multinational corporations and international capital. This has greatly weakened the capacity of nation states and governments to promote human development and offer protection to the poor. With the continued uneven distribution of global opportunities, the consequences of poverty, the most pressing problem arising in these circumstances, increasingly flows across national frontiers.[15] The worst hit in this transformation are the poor and underprivileged home based workers who dominate in an informal sector marked by sharp income disparity.

    Invisibility of women's work
  9. The invisibility of women's and girls' work continues to be an obstacle in understanding the contribution of domestic labour to the wider economy. There have been two distinct approaches to policy-oriented research on women, both of which have impacted on development policy. Although each paradigm starts from the premise that women are economic actors, both emphasise different aspects of women's economic performance and use different analytical language. The first argues that women lose ground relative to men as development proceeds.[16] This view emphasises women's reproductive role and argues that women play a particularly important role in unmonitored economic systems. Researchers who adopt this approach suggest that conventional measures of economic activity underestimate women's unpaid work. Thus, with development, women are relegated to traditional sectors thereby increasing the income gap between the sexes. However, lack of data makes it difficult to empirically test this hypothesis of the negative impact of development on gender inequality. The second approach, which theorises women as participants rather than beneficiaries of development programs, focuses on women in economic need. It is based on the premise that the ratio of women to men is greater in the poorest income households and that the paid work undertaken by these women receives only the barest of wages.[17] Therefore this approach maintains that balanced economic growth can only occur following improvements in the working conditions and income of women in the lowest income households. Research of this nature uses individual and household surveys to measure women's contributions and to impute economic value from the time spent in home production. However the problem arises in these time use surveys as to which household activities should be termed productive and which termed leisure.
  10. Like women's unpaid domestic work, women's home based productive work for cash income is generally invisible and undervalued.[18] This is very paradoxical because income derived from home based work by women frequently provides the basis for the survival of families in poverty. As we have seen above, this is primarily an unorganised sector, falling under the small scale and cottage industry category. It is, therefore, generally ignored by data gathering systems, policy makers and administrators.

    The Old City of Hyderabad

    Figure 1. Hyderabad City Map, on Maps of India, 2006, accessed 23 July 2008. Figure 2. Map of India showing location of Hyderabad. From Project Pyramid, 2007, accessed 23 July 2008.

  11. The section of Hyderabad (Figures 1 and 2), now referred to as the Old City, was planned nearly 400 years ago. At that time, Golconda Fort, the then headquarters of the Qutub Shahi Kings, was unable to contain the growing population within the fort premises and hence there was a need to expand. The new city was planned on the road running east from Golconda as far as Masulipatnam, the famous Andhra eastern seaport, in order to link trade and commerce routes with the urban centres. It was then divided by main intersecting highways into four quarters. The north-western quarter was reserved for the royal palace, with the east allotted to the nobility. The remainder of the city, divided into 12 mohallas (localities) spread over an area of 10 square miles, was inhabited by the common people. Besides nearly 14,000 shops, there were mosques, hammams (public baths), Ashoor khanas (a mourning place for Shias to shed tears for the martyrdom of Hussain), langarkhanas (to distribute food to the poor), Dar-ul-Shifa (public hospital), and sarais (guest houses or bungalows where travellers, traders, missionaries and men of fine arts assembled from different corners of the world after long and arduous journeys). Gardens also adorned many of these buildings. Within no time Hyderabad grew into an important trade centre whose major exports included diamonds, textiles, sugar, iron and spices, and which imported commodities such as Arabian horses, pearls, porcelain and carpets. However, the city went into decline following a decision by the conquering Mughals to shift the capital to Aurangabad in 1687, which was then the new centre of political and commercial activity.

    Figure 3. Charminar and Golconda Fort. The two are at a distance of 11 km. The Golconda fort is now in ruins and this was the Capital of the Qutub Shahi Kings who built the Charminar. In its heyday, the 11 kilometre long road from Golconda to outer Hyderabad was a fabulous market where jewellery, diamonds, pearls and other gems, which were famous all over the world, were sold. Charminar, sometimes called the Mosque of the Four Minarets, in the Old City of Hyderabad, was built in 1591 to commemorate the eradication of the plague. Many bangles are sold in the vicinity of this structure. From, Map of, online:, accessed 23 July 2008.

  12. Today in the twenty-first century, the Old City of Hyderabad is a high density population area divided into Circles I, II, and III. The majority of the people are Muslims and there have been intermittent outbreaks of communal conflict between Muslims and the Hindu population, with a series of incidents occurring, for example, in the 1980s. As recently as 25 August 2007, Hyderabad was subjected to twin blasts arising from sectarian conflict. The first bomb exploded in Lumbini Amusement Park and the second five minutes later in the Old City of Hyderabad. At least forty-two people were killed and fifty-four were injured in the two attacks. The day after the blasts, police discovered nineteen other unexploded bombs—most fitted with timers and placed in plastic bags—throughout Hyderabad at bus stops, by cinemas, road junctions and pedestrian bridges and near a public water fountain.
  13. This political unrest has been accompanied by increasing mobility among the residents of Hyderabad. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, more and more people from the area have begun taking jobs in the Gulf countries, but very little of the money has found its way back into
    Figure 4. Hyderabad Street Market, on Richard Ishida, 2006, accessed 23 July 2008. the Old City. Most of the migrants who return to the area build houses in the new section of Hyderabad or in and around new areas like Towli Chowki or Mehedipatnam. In fact migration to these newer areas has become a status symbol. Many respondents in the Old City to whom we spoke reeled off the names of relatives who have now seen better days and left the Old City to migrate elsewhere. As a result, infrastructure facilities in the Old City of Hyderabad continue to deteriorate. Today, the increase in population and growing urbanisation have both taken a toll leaving an overpopulated slum area where a large number of women, often assisted by children, are involved in some trade or other. The term 'slum' is used here in the context of the operational definition provided by the United Nations expert group, UN-HABITAT. This organisation designates a slum as an area that combines to various extents the following characteristics: inadequate access to safe water; inadequate access to sanitation and other infrastructure; poor structural quality of housing; overcrowding; and insecure residential status. To these one might add the low socioeconomic status of residents. The slum community is in turn defined as a geographical entity where more than half of the households have the characteristics of slum households.[19]

  14. While it is the bangle trade which has given the Old City of Hyderabad world-wide recognition, there are a number of other important trades conducted in the area. These include zariwork (embroidery done on sarees and other textiles with golden, zari, threads) agarbatti making (making of incense sticks), tie and dye work (printing of designs with dyed colours on textile), pandan production (making small boxes of silver and brass, with intricately designed tops, for keeping betel leaves and nuts), leather and rexene work (making purses, bags, travel bags, scooter and car seat covers from leather and rexene, a type of scrap plastic), and a number of handicrafts making products from gun metal.
  15. In addition to the exploitation of women, child labour is rampant in this area with both boy and girl children assisting their parents in the various trades. Due to the poverty of families many children are deprived of the opportunity of continuing their studies or of even attending school at all. As a result, although some do receive an education, there are also a large number of illiterate children and school dropouts. This is in spite of the fact that many non-Governmental Organisations (NGO's) work for the welfare of the weaker sections of the population in the Old City.

    The Survey

  16. Our study examined the status of women and girl children in two trades, bangle and agarbatti making, in the Old City of Hyderabad. The specific objectives of the survey were to:

    • analyze the socio economic background of the households involved
    • evaluate the literacy status of the mother and girl children
    • evaluate the health status of the mother and the girl children.

    Based on the information gathered we sought to suggest remedial measures and policy inputs with a view to devising a social action plan to help Government and NGOs to develop policies and measures.

    Materials and Methods
  17. We administered three questionnaires in the regional languages (Telugu and Urdu) in order to collect data for the project. The first sought information on the household, the second on the mother and the third on the child worker. The questionnaire on the household assessed family size, occupations of members, total earnings in the household, and income from the two trades being examined. The questions relating to the mother were divided into two parts. The first dealt with domestic work, educational attainments, age of marriage, reproductive history, nutrition and health status. The second part dealt with the trade and included questions concerning reasons for taking up the work, conditions and nature of work, how time was spent in a day, and the risks involved in the work. Health risks were determined through self-reports of perceived problems arising from the work. Questions relating to the child also assessed working conditions, reasons for taking up the work, literacy status, recreation, domestic work, health status and ambitions.

    Data Collection
  18. Data was collected by Nuzhat Khatoon, Viqar Atiya and Mumtaz Fatima, from the Centre for Women's Studies, Maulana Azad National Urdu University, and involved the following stages:

    • Visiting the Charminar Municipal Office to gather statistics and information on the Old City
    • Collecting additional details from secondary works written on the Old City
    • Surveying each of the areas in the Old City. We initially thought we would proceed according to the trade, but found that since these were scattered throughout the city we had to restrict our sample area to Circles I and II.
    • Making a rough estimate of the total number of trades located in these two circles. We eventually chose to concentrate on two of the ten trades in the area. Efforts were made to ensure our population sample covered a variety of different localities in each Circle.
    • Observing the technical details in the production of an item. Once we had selected the two trades we spent considerable time watching the women work in order to enrich our knowledge of the craft and also of the work done by child workers.
    • Visiting various areas and, through random sampling, selecting our respondents to ensure a fairly representative sample from each trade.
    • Administering detailed questionnaires seeking information on all aspects of the life of the women respondents and children working with them.
    • Conducting interviews and making field observations to overcome the limitations of the formal questionnaire.
    • Analysing the data thus collected from different locations about the two trades in order to arrive at general and specific findings and to make suggestions for follow up action.

    The Sample
  19. We surveyed a total of 250 respondents: 100 bangle making women and 100 agarbatti making women, in addition to 50 girl children. A child labourer was defined as one between 5 and 15 years of age who assisted the mother full time or part time. In our sample, 75 percent of women were married, 15 percent were unmarried, 8 percent were widowed and 2 percent were divorced. Around 30 percent of households were supported totally by the income of women and were women headed households. That is, the total earnings of the household came from the income of widows, single unmarried women, deserted women or divorced women. These happened to be the poorest of the poor households.
  20. Besides working in the bangle or agarbatti trades, 23 percent of the respondents ran a petty business, while 5 percent were self employed and had a small unit or kirana shop (small provision store). None of our respondents' husbands or fathers had a salaried job. In fact, 19 percent were unemployed and had never had a regular job. Those earning an income worked as an auto driver, zari worker, rickshaw puller, carpenter, cook, watch man or cycle taxi driver. Among the working men, 13 percent had a monthly income of Rs.500 to 1000; 39 percent had an income of Rs. 1001 to 2000; 25 percent had an income of Rs. 2001 to 3000; and 4 percent had an income of Rs. 3001 to 5000 (Rs. 40 = $US1.00). Hence, even in households where the husband or father was working, the earnings of the women formed a substantial proportion of the family's income.
  21. The vast majority of the respondents (90 percent) were from a nuclear family with only 10 percent being from joint families. Urbanisation has weakened both the influence of joint families and the rigidity of social norms affecting women's work outside the house. This, combined with the higher cost of living in cities, offered strong motivation for increased female work participation to supplement family incomes. Most of the women to whom we spoke preferred a nuclear family where they felt interpersonal problems were fewer.
  22. The Old City is a very congested area with a large number of houses. In our study we found most of the families living in a single room house. We also found that 58 percent of women in the bangle and incense-making trades were illiterate, 32 percent had studied up to primary level, while only 10 percent had received a high school education. The daily income of the women was very meagre with only 1 percent earning between Rs. 51 and Rs. 100 per day. Among the remaining 99 percent, 28 percent earned from Rs. 20–25, 23 percent Rs. 26–35, 14 percent Rs. 10 and 10 percent Rs. 15. (For details, see Table 1 below.)

    Table 1. Daily income of women in Bangle making and Agarbatti making

    Daily Income Women Percentage %
    2 rupees
    5 rupees
    10 rupees
    12 rupees
    15 rupees
    20-25 rupees
    26-35 rupees
    36-40 rupees
    41-45 rupees
    46-50 rupees
    51-100 rupees

  23. Concerning the duration of time spent working, the women had been involved in the trade for anything ranging from three to thirty-five years. Two percent of these women had worked for thirty five years, 11 percent for 22 years, 12 percent for 10 years, another 10 percent for 5 years and another 12 percent for 4 years. (For details, see Table 2 below.) Many of these women had started as girl child workers helping their mothers and, having married into nearby localities, they continued to work after marriage. Many new daughters-in-law had also been introduced to and were learning the trade.

    Table 2. Total number of years women have worked in Bangle making and Agarbatti making

    No. of years Frequency Percentage %
    One year
    Two years
    Three years
    Four years
    Five years
    Six years
    Seven years
    Eight years
    Ten years
    Twelve years
    Fifteen years
    Seventeen years
    Twenty years
    Twenty five years
    Thirty years
    Thirty five years

  24. Among the girl children, 18.8 percent were illiterate, 16.01 percent were drop outs and 65.19 percent were going to school. Although the majority were thus receiving an education, many were studying at primary level only. It was often at high school that the girls dropped out and assisted their mothers full time. Among the drop outs 13.12 percent of children had left school at primary level (class V), 8.39 percent at upper primary level (class VII), and 13.4 percent at high school (class X).

    The trades

    Bangle making
  25. The harsh reality of the beautiful bangles for which Hyderabad is famous is that they are the product of the exploited labour of women and children. Down the centuries, the lure of this product has persisted in the hearts of millions of women seeking to adorn their arms with a dazzling set of Hyderabadi bangles. There are more than 500 shops flanking either side of the world famous Charminar today selling their wares. Hyderabad is an amazing mix of the ancient and modern, embodied in one of the oldest shopping centres in the city, the Lad Bazaar, where both bangles and agarbattis are sold along with a large number of other goods.
  26. Bangle production takes place both at karkhanas (small centres outside the house) as well as in homes. It is one of the hereditary occupations of many families in the Old City. Generally boys are found in karkhanas, which are situated in centres such as shops, while girl workers are found in homes. By and large, the houses in the Old City are very small, generally with one room or, rarely, two rooms, including a kitchen. Bathrooms are either very small or non-existent. After the daily chores are completed and food cooked for the day, many of these houses are converted in small karkhanas to produce bangles. Bangle making requires a furnace to burn constantly therefore the tiny spaces where the trade occurs are very hot and dusty. While generally well lit, rooms are filled with the smell of burning chemicals.

    Figures 5 and 6. Bangle makers preparing an organic mould from vegetable based glue and colouring the bangle as required. Photographer, Rekha Pande, 2007.

  27. There are four steps in the production of a bangle. These are:

    • Preparing an organic mould from vegetable based glue and colouring this as required (see Figures 5 and 6)
    • Giving the coloured glue the shape of a bangle with the help of metal moulds or brass bangles
    • Refining and perfecting the shape of the bangle with the heat of the small furnaces
    • Finally, embedding creatively arranged and designed coloured stones into the bangle to enhance the beauty of the final product. These stones are heated on the furnace (see Figure 7).

    Figure 7. Embedding coloured stones into the bangle. Photographer Rekha Pande, 2007.

    Child workers are involved in all steps of the production of small bangles with simple designs. There are many incidences of children burning their hands in the furnaces while shaping the bangles or embedding the stones. Both women and children complained that sitting in one place throughout the day gives them backache. Further the need to concentrate their vision on the furnaces and stones causes eye pain and other problems and can take a heavy toll on eyesight.
  28. Completed bangles are sold for anything between Rs. 450 and Rs. 4000 per pair depending
    Figures 8 and 9. Bangles made by women in Hyderabad. Photographer Rekha Pande, 2007. on the intricacies of the design and the quality of stones (see Figures 8 and 9). The more intricate the design, the higher the value of the bangle. At the time of marriage, bangles are given to a Muslim bride by both her own family and by her in-laws, thus creating a heavy demand for these during the marriage season. While, by and large, women and children manufacture the bangles, many husbands are also involved in the bargaining and handing over of the goods to agents. The stones used for bangle-making are not indigenous but are imported from Austria, Germany and France. Both men and women complained that recent Government increases in the exchange value of the stones have negatively influenced their incomes. Workers now seldom have the resources to buy these stones directly, but must work through an agent who supplies the raw material and collects the finished goods. The finished products are then transferred to a licensed merchant who claims the credit for both the manufacture and sale and thereby earns huge profits on these bangles.

  29. In the case of intricately designed bangles, women can work for nine to ten hours, including daily chores, but they are unable to complete more than two or three sets of bangles per day. At the end of the day they get very little money for all their efforts thus becoming trapped in a never-ending cycle of overwork and low pay. Since the women earn a bare minimum, they have no resources with which to buy raw materials and must therefore rely on contractors to supply these. As they also lack bargaining power or the means of selling their products directly, it is licensed merchants who corner all the financial benefits of the items produced by the women's labour. Because there are no unions to offer protection in this sector, the women cannot refuse the terms of the contractors who are on the pay rolls of the licensed merchants. If they do refuse, there are many more women who are willing to do this work. Regardless of the bare minimum that the women earn the money is crucial for their survival. Thus, there is a great deal of competition for this work.

    Agarbatti making
  30. Agarbatti making, like bangle production, is one of the flourishing trades in the Old City in which agents exploit large numbers of women and children who live in circumstances of extreme poverty.
    Figure 10. Incense sticks, Photographer Rekha Pande, 2007. Since out-sourcing is common in this trade, women and children deal only with the agents who provide the material for making the paste and the sticks. The sale of incense sticks increases during the festival season. In spite of this high demand, however, little of the profits reach the women or children who perform the actual labour. The manufacture of agarbatti incense sticks is a cottage industry which began in the Thanjavur region of Tamil Nadu. It has increasingly taken on a national character and is now spread over the states
    of Karnataka (the dominant producer), Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Kerala, Orissa and Bihar. This trade occurs on a large scale in the Old City of Hyderabad. It is done both at big and small karkhanas as well as at homes. Unlike the bangle industry, which sometimes involved men and boys in production processes that take place outside the home, this trade is dominated by women and girls who work both in karkhanas and in homes. A karkhana is generally a small room in which fifteen to twenty women and girls sit making agarbattis. The women and children told us they preferred to finish their household chores and then come together to work since they can spend this time chatting with friends. At home, their work is often disrupted by the need to attend to other duties. Unfortunately the option of working in a karkhana is not available to women with small children who have no alternative but to sit at home and make the agarbattis. There are no crèche facilities and women are generally not encouraged to bring small children to karkhanas. Unlike the hot and dusty workplaces of the bangle trade, the big and small karkhanas are generally neat and tolerably clean. Home based workplaces, however, are very small and badly lit. Furthermore, these are generally a family's living area as well as the place of work for a large number of women.
  31. Agarbatti making is done in five steps as follows:

    • cutting the bamboo sticks into thin pieces or slices
    • preparing the paste
    • putting paste over the bamboo slice or stick
    • drying the agarbatti
    • perfuming and packaging the agarbatti under different labels.

    Only women work as agarbatti rollers although they are often assisted by girls. Large factory owners generally outsource the bulk of the production to contractors who have the work done by women and girls. These workers are involved in the first four steps of production. However, perfuming and packaging occurs at the factory. While men and boys are not involved in production, they may be involved in the factory packaging and transportation of the finished incense sticks.

    Figures 11, 12 and 13. Children workers making agarbatti in their family home. Photographer Rekha Pande, 2007.

  32. Cutting the bamboo sticks is done with a blade on a small wooden platform provided by the contractor. The thinner the agarbatti, the better is its value. Since there is a strong belief that children have small and nimble fingers and can cut very thin slices, the labour of children ranging from five to ten years is generally preferred for this work. Unfortunately this belief is a myth which conceals the exploitation of the children as a source of cheap labour. Making the paste is regarded as a specialised skill and children generally do not take part in this aspect of production. However, they do assist in rolling the paste around the incense stick. In addition to thin bamboo sticks used for agarbatti, children also cut thicker sticks which are used for eating hand-made ice creams and fruits.
  33. Contractors give the work of producing large quantities of lower quality sticks mainly to home-based workers. Home-based agarbatti workers are provided with the raw materials associated with agarbatti production: bamboo sticks, jigat powder (a chemical mixed with saw dust) and charcoal for rolling. The equipment used is a low wooden board three feet square in size around which the workers squat to roll the sticks. The contractor then supplies the rolled raw agarbattis to factories for drying, perfuming and packaging. The agarbattis are finally separated and priced according to their perfumes and packaging.
  34. Most of the women workers in the bangle trade are of child-bearing age with family responsibilities. These women work with the assistance of young children. Older women also do this work for their social security. Frequently, entire families of four to six women and girls are engaged in the activity. Agarbatti rollers are paid on a piece-rate basis. Workers in Hyderabad are paid at a rate of Rs. 9 per kilogram of the agarbatti paste. However, pay also depends on the quality of stick. If the incense stick is thin then women are paid Rs. 9 for making 1200 agarbattis. If the sticks are thick then they are only paid Rs. 6 for 1200 agarbattis. In neither case can the women earn more than Rs. 325 per month. Earnings of a family of six were reported in the range of Rs. 600 to 800 ($US15-20) for a six day week even when the women were assisted by three children. The raw material and labour costs of the women and children involved in rolling raw agarbatti together are valued at only 10 percent of the total costs. All the high value processes—perfuming (30 percent) packaging (30 percent) and marketing and overheads (30 percent)—are controlled by male manufacturers.
  35. Women and children working in this trade suffer a range of common health problems. They are subject to backache due to continuous bending. In fact, they are vulnerable to a variety of postural and locomotive system problems due to the highly confined and repetitive nature of their work. Many contract skin ailments and/or lose their sense of touch. Their blistered hands are evidence of the gruelling nature of the work they do which often leaves permanent scarring and elevated palms even in the case of children. This is the result of exposure to ophthalmic acid ethers used in the production of agarbattis. Workers can also lose their sense of smell due to the all-pervading fragrance of the incense sticks.

  36. Most of the women working in the two trades in our study in the Old City primarily do so because their work is necessary for survival. Each trade was dominated by women, children and men from low income groups who were living well below the poverty line. The social and cultural constructions of the existing power relations in the society along with the disadvantages of out-sourcing in the informal manufacturing system all contribute to the very subordinate position of the women and child workers. Since this work was essential for their survival and in the absence of any other means of livelihood, they continue to do this work, in spite of serious occupational health hazards.
  37. Almost all the women interviewed preferred to be housewives taking in work at home because they felt they had no other skill. They did not want to go out and work as wage labourers or domestic helpers since they considered both occupations to be below their dignity. Neither did they feel capable enough to establish their own petty businesses while salaried jobs were beyond them. Hence most of the women saw themselves as housewives doing extra paid work because of lack of any other opportunities. Though the women were contributing to the household expenses and felt empowered in doing so, they never saw themselves as workers. The total environment where women were expected to be primarily inside the house was also largely responsible for this kind of attitude. Yet these women were contributing substantially to the income of the family and often spent their earnings on household expenditure and their children. The husbands and fathers of these women had no salaried jobs and no other major source of income such as agricultural land or other business. Hence the women generally belonged to families whose very low economic level was barely sufficient to meet basic daily needs. Added to this was the fact that family planning had really never been accepted by the respondents or their husbands. On an average the women had more than four children each while some had as many as eight. The harsh physical conditions of the bangle and agarbatti trades, the social environment, long hours, and the general stresses and strains of poverty all effect women's health adversely. Health cannot be viewed independently of the socio-economic systems in operation. It is important that improvement in health conditions should deal primarily with the improvement in the quality of life.
  38. Occupational health hazards have never been the focus in either legislation or implementation and are generally ignored in India.[20] Neither the mothers nor the children held bangle-making or agarbati-making responsible for their ill health. Furthermore, since the ailments from which they suffered neither prevented them from working nor required them to be laid up in bed for any time, they regarded them as minor afflictions causing only irritation and discomfort. By and large the women worked for eight hours or more and girls from five to six hours. The majority of our respondents (79 percent) said that they liked their work because it gave them independence and they were earning something for the family. They felt they had no other skills and could not earn an income in any other trade. This was in spite of the fact that they had to deal with the serious problem of no earnings when contractors failed to supply materials. Hence, in spite of the exploitative nature of the work, the women depended on this for their livelihood.
  39. Only 21 percent of women did not like their work, citing health problems as the main reason for this. Although keen to leave, they felt trapped and unable to manage without the income. In other words, in spite of their ill health and their aversion to the work, they believed they had no option but to continue in these trades. These women, incidentally, were very critical of Government hospitals where treatment involved loss of time and working hours. Therefore, when ill, they preferred going to a private doctor. The health issues of these workers must be understood in the context of the total labour force scenario and the exploitative nature of their work. The structural violence experienced by women and girl workers in the study is rooted in class, caste and gender inequalities whereby women are undervalued and discriminated against at every turn. This social environment creates a very low self-image for the women. Having internalised these values and notions, they pass the same ideas on to their girls, creating a vicious cycle that continues through the generations.
  40. In spite of their meagre earnings the women did have a notion of empowerment through economic independence. When respondents were asked how they spent their earnings, the majority of them (72 percent) stated that they spent this money on the household. Concern for family members meant that they rarely spent anything on themselves, except occasionally for eating pan (betel leaf). They were aware of their family responsibilities and worked to allay apprehension regarding the possibility of bad times in the future. This is reflected in the fact that they contributed to the family income with their earnings, tried to give a better education to their children, or saved something for a rainy day. None wanted to depend on their husbands in these respects.
  41. The contractual labour system, which is indispensable to the two trades that we studied, results in widespread exploitation. It is imperative that this area be regulated as soon as possible so that workers from the sector can be brought under the purview of the law and thus be eligible for the full benefits of legislation. Furthermore, additional legislation must be enacted to apply to both the women and children working at home. There is also a need to identify an N.G.O. to formulate and implement the various welfare programmes at the grass root level for these workers, especially the children.
  42. As we have noted, a large number of girls in the agarbatti and the bangle industries are illiterate or have dropped out of school at a very early age. A non-formal education centre should be established and designed to suit the needs of these girls. Such a centre must operate outside the hours of the karkhana workplaces so that girls in need will be free to attend. We did not come across any rehabilitation programme for child labour in the Old City, in spite of the urgent need for this. We therefore strongly recommend the development of specific programmes designed to discourage the children from undertaking various trades. A stipend should be given to working children as an incentive to join a training centre.
  43. In spite of the need for intervention, we found widespread disdain for governmental schemes and programmes. There was a general opinion that these schemes involved excess paper work and that the benefits were monopolised by a few influential people. Thus, future programs should attempt to reduce paper work and be accompanied by initiatives promoting greater awareness about the benefits of government legislation and schemes.
  44. We conclude the paper with a final comment on health, arguably the most pressing issue facing the workers in the two trades examined. It is self-evident that immediate action should be taken to alleviate the specific health problems of the women and children in the trades discussed in this paper. However, as noted above, these specific problems are associated with wider needs. Overall, health cannot be viewed independently of the socio-economic system and improvements in health conditions will depend primarily on improvements in the workers' quality of life. Hence health programmes in the Old City have to have direct linkages with programmes for protected water supply, environmental sanitation and hygiene, nutrition, education, family planning, maternity and child welfare. Only when these issues are addressed will the women and children who engage in the bangle making and agarbatti trades have any guarantee of a socially just life.


    [1] Data for this study was collected at the Centre for Women's Studies, Maulana Azad National Urdu University. I would like to acknowledge the help received from Nuzhat Khatoon, Viqar Atiya and Mumtaz Fatima in the collection of data.

    [2] Jeemoi Unni and Rani Uma, Impact of Recent Policies on Home Based Work in India, Discussion Paper Series, 10, Human Development Resource Centre, UNDP, India, 2005, p. 2.

    [3] U. Kalpagam, Labour and Gender: Survival in Urban India, New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1994, p. 1.

    [4] Shram Shakti, Report of the National Commission on Self-Employed Women and Women in the Informal Sector, New Delhi: Publication Division, Government of India, Patiala House, June, 1988 (sections 1.8 and 1.10).

    [5] Sharlene Herse-Biber and Gregg Lee Carter, Working Women in America, Split Dream, New York, Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 78–79.

    [6] Rekha Pande, 'Girl child rights and labour exploitation in the beedi industry,' in Indian Journal of Human Rights, vol.7, nos 1 & 2 (Jan-December 2003): 52–73.

    [7] Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, Government of India, 'Informal sector in India: Approaches to social security,' online:, accessed 18 March, 2008.

    [8] Arjun Sengupta, Report of National Commission on Enterprises in the Unorganised/Informal Sector, Ministry of Labour and Employment, Government of India, online: percent20Review.HTM, accessed 17 March, 2008.

    [9] Elisabeth Prugl and Irene Tinker, 'Microentrepreneurs and home workers, convergent categories,' in World Development, vol. 25, no. 9 (1997): 1471–82.

    [10] Jeemoi Unni and Rani Uma, Impact of Recent Policies on Home Based Work in India, Discussion Paper Series, 10, Human Development Resource Centre, UNDP, India, 2005, p. 14.

    [11] Nirmala Banerjee, 'Small and large units—symbiosis or matsyanyaya?' in Small Scale Enterprises in Industrial Development: The Indian Experience, ed. K.B. Suri, New Delhi, Sage Publications, 1988, pp. 184–202, p. 186.

    [12] Ashutosh Varshney 'Mass politics or elite politics? Indian economic reforms in comparative perspective,' in India in the Era of Economic Reforms, ed. Jeffery Sachs, Ashutosh Varshney and Nirpam Bajpai. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001, pp 222–60.

    [13] Government of India, Discussion Paper, Economic Reforms: Two Years After and the Tasks Ahead, New Delhi: Ministry of Finance, 1993.

    [14] Rekha Pande, 'The social costs of globalization: restructuring developing world economies,' in Journal of Asian Women's Studies (Kitakyushu Forum on Asian Women), vol. 10 (2001): 1–14, p. 14.

    [15] Mahbub ul Haq, Human Development Report, UNDP, New York, Oxford University Press, 1995.

    [16] See for example, Irene Tinker and Michele Bo Bramsen, Women and World Development, Washington, D.C: Overseas Development Council, 1976.

    [17] See, for example, Mary Buvinic, Margaret A. Lycette and William Paul McGreevey, Women and Poverty in the Third World, London: John Hopkins University Press, 1983.

    [18] Andreas Menefee Singh, and Anita Kelles Viitanen (eds), Invisible Hands, Women in Home Based Production, New Delhi, Sage Publications, 1987.

    [19] UN-Habitat, 'Monitoring the implementation of the goal of the United Nations Millennium Declaration on improving the lives of slum dwellers,' online:, accessed on 24 March, 2008. To avoid introducing too many concepts the terms 'shelter deprivation' and 'slums' are used to when describing the same phenomenon.

    [20] Ramani Durvasula, 'Occupational health information's systems in India,' in Protecting Workers Health in the Third World, National and International Strategies, ed. Michael R. Reich and T Okubo, New York: Auburn House, 1992, pp. 103–34.

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