The universe, according to Indian mythology, has originated from “panch tatva” (five elements), i.e. Akash, Agni, Vayu, Jal and Prithvi. Agni (fire), the perennial source of energy, is considered the most crucial element. Since time immemorial, our traditions, rituals and cultural beliefs have identified agarbatti (incense sticks), a universally accepted heritage product that transcends beyond the religions as a symbol of fire (Agni) in our diurnal course and religious practices. It finds an equal place across all religions and is lit in temples, churches, mosques, monasteries, gurdwaras and dargahs, and alike across the world. Its key component, bamboo, too has become integral to human existence with this.
Bamboo has been a symbol of sustainability and life in many ways. Bamboo shoots have been used in cooking on auspicious occasions. Lord Krishna’s flute is made of it and so he is called “Venugopal”. It can be described as ‘Vansh’ tree because it grows in families and hence is synonymous to ‘growth’. It has been associated with human life from birth to death in various traditions and burning of agarbatti is also symbolic of sacrifice of self and ego to the divine. In fact, bamboo has had an important position in our lives since ages. Bridges, houses, furniture, artifacts, musical instruments have been built of it and used as a construction material too. The sacred ‘mandap’ in Hindu marriages is essentially made of it. To top it all, the longevity and resilience of it can be gauged by the fact that it was the only plant which survived the nuclear radiation in the Hiroshima nuclear attack.
Switching over from the age-old rituals and cultural beliefs to the present-day realism, we find that agarbatti and bamboo continue to be the tool of human sustain- ability as employment generators particularly in India where the economy largely depends on village industries. Modern science too identifies agarbatti as a “natural healer” and no wonder, it is globally used as a cure in aromatherapy. This is backed by several reports suggesting that it is an air sanitiser, a stress buster and a natural sedative to cure sleep disorder and anxiety.
However, a vicious campaign has surfaced in the country citing “severe health repercussions” from burning of agarbatti which says it contains compounds like diethyl phthalate which causes diseases. The propaganda being spread is that its smoke is more harmful than smoking cigarettes and it is a bigger polluter of indoor air than any other pollutant. The claims are based on some random research by some little-known institute in a foreign country. What essentially makes this research look bogus and devoid of merit is the lack of scientific rationale to substantiate the claims.
What also negates these fictitious stories of agarbatti being cancerous and pollutant is the fact that agarbatti made in India is natural and contains no hazardous substance. Its raw components include bamboo sticks (31%), charcoal (31%), sawdust (31%) and joss powder (7%), and all of these components are natural and cause no harmful emission when burnt. Even if we assume that some harmful element is fraudulently mixed by some manufacturers, it is unfair to paint the entire industry in a bad light by calling agarbatti injurious to health.
There is much scientific literature about the characteristics of diethyl phthalate, which is widely used in the perfume and cosmetic industries. The World Health Organization’s Concise International Chemical Assessment Document 52 (CICAD 52) states that no histopathological abnormality occurs in liver, kidney or other body organs with the exposure to diethyl phthalate. The WHO also does not record any carcinogenic effects of this chemical in laboratory tests. The chemical is more used as a plasticizer in medical equipment and tubings than anywhere else. And if at all some grave caution is to be observed, it is in its use in the medical industry, rather than in any cottage industry.
Further, even if a minimal quantity of diethyl phthalate is used in agarbatti by some manufacturers
during perfuming, the inhalation quantities are negligible. It is a matter of common sense and a fact known in every household that agarbattis are always burnt in ventilated places. Hence, it is just laughable to equate it with smoking a cigarette.
Let’s understand this with another example. The adulteration of milk or milk products like ghee is not new. The health hazards of adulterated milk products are also widely known. But this has not prompted prohibition on milk production or closure of the milk processing industry anywhere in India or the world. If at all milk adulteration is noticed, strict action is taken against the adulterator to ensure public health instead of shutting down the industry and killing lakhs of employments.
The agarbatti industry in the UK, which contributes decently to its economy, came under a similar attack in 2015. This prompted a comprehensive investigation by the National Health Service
(NHS) of the UK into the claims that its smoke was more injurious than cigarette smoke. The claim was based on research conduct- ed by South China University of Technology.
The investigation by NHS unearthed a nefarious Chinese design to present agarbatti as a pub- lic health hazard. It found that not only the said research was funded by China Tobacco Guangdong Industrial Company but also one of the researchers was strongly associated with the tobacco company. In the laboratory experiment, they used 4 incense sticks and 1 cigarette and tested results on Chinese hamsters. By any scientific reckoning, the use of just 4 incense sticks and 1 cigarette is not scientific rigor of sampling and the conclusions drawn are far from convincing. Further, the intent of this research itself was to absolve the tobacco company of any health related accusation and shift the blame on globally accepted agarbatti. The investigation by NHS categorically stated that it wasn’t smoked and so is not drawn directly into the lungs in the way the tobacco smoke is inhaled.
To understand the severity of the ongoing campaign and the impact it will have on India’s self-sustainability measures, it is crucial to take a look at the huge potential of the agarbatti industry. The agarbatti requirement in India is approx 5.44 lakh MT per annum. While India produces only 2.66 lakh MT agarbatti per annum, there is a huge deficit of 2.77 lakh MT annually and hence, a huge opportunity to fill this gap by increasing local production and creating more employment. An estimated 5 lakh people, mostly women, are engaged with the agarbatti industry in India and lakhs of people are engaged with bamboo cultivation in many parts of the country. Such malicious campaigns against the burning of agarbatti will only end up killing the livelihood of these people.
Almost 65% of agarbatti manufacturers in India are small manufacturers who procure their raw material locally and support the country’s economy. The remain- ing 35% big manufacturers imported raw agarbatti as well as its raw materials like bamboo sticks and joss powder from China and Vietnam before the Modi government “restricted” the import of raw agarbatti on 31 July 2019 and increased the import duty on bamboo sticks from 10% to 25% on 9 June this year. The idea was to curb the heavy imports from China and Vietnam. India’s import dependency of raw agarbatti reached 80% in 2019. Similarly, import dependency of round bamboo sticks, used in making agarbatti, reached to 62% in which 78% share was of China and 21% of Vietnam, which literally paralysed traditional, age-old local agarbatti industry in India, since 2011 when its import duty was reduced to 10% from 30%.
This import restriction followed by hike in import duty was an important step of the government to protect the domestic agarbatti industry and make India “aatmanirbhar” in agarbatti production. This action resulted in an enormous loss of export from China and Vietnam to India. While it sustained the local cottage industry and resulted in revival of thou- sands of closed agarbatti units during the last one year; this act of “self-reliance” ruffled feathers and reactivated the viciously sponsored propaganda machinery in India through clandestine channels and through irresponsible opinion makers in the pub- lic domain.
An attack on agarbatti is simply an attack on our cultural heritage and socio-economic fabric. India has had several instances of such economic and socio-cultural wars sponsored on its soil by the foreign masters. We all are aware how “environmental and health concerns” were made a tool by foreign-funded NGOs to stonewall many projects of national importance. Sardar Sarovar project, uranium mining, atomic power projects, tobacco and tea industry, ship breaking yard are just a few of the many projects that were stalled for a long time so that India remained deficient in all these sectors.
This sustained campaign is so malicious that it undermines the cultural and heritage values of a product that has stayed amongst us from the Vedic times and has been one of the symbols of our faith and social history. More than all, the campaign under- mines the potential of sustainable development, particularly since lakhs of marginal workers are engaged in the agarbatti industry and the implications of a vicious campaign of vested interest could harm the social fabric.
The writer is chairman, Khadi & Village Industries Commission.