Using Participatory Rural Appraisals (PRA) to understand the changes in Cauvery Delta region

Using Participatory Rural Appraisals (PRA) to understand the changes in Cauvery Delta region

Kruthika Rao

There seems to be no end to the woes experienced by the farmers in the Cauvery delta region in Tamil Nadu. After facing consecutive droughts for three years, this region was  devastated by cyclone Gaja recently. Reports indicated that 60-80 per cent of all the coconut trees in this region had been uprooted.

Farmers in the delta region now face the grim task of rebuilding as they grapple with mounting losses owing to the destruction of their coconut crop. But coconuts were not always widely grown in this region. In this region, touted as the granary of South India, paddy has been the mainstay. However, water crisis and labour shortage has prompted farmers to shift to other crops or move out of farming.

Despite having one of the most extensive canal irrigation systems in place, farmers complain that water has not reached them on time for around ten years now, making the traditional two paddy crops per year difficult. Agrarian distress has driven farmers gradually out of agriculture leading to labour shortages. The flagship government programme MGNREGA has also been seen as a reason for lack of interest in farm based activities. This has pushed farmers towards mechanization thereby increasing input costs. Use of farm machinery has changed the nature of agrarian relations and production in the region. Furthermore, owing to uncertainty of rainfall and canal irrigation, farmers are shifting to groundwater for irrigation. 

It is in this context that Jyoti Nair, a PhD student at ATREE, is trying to study the wellbeing of farming households, which are reeling under multiple stresses- changing socio-economic relations, impact of government policies, water stress and increased frequency of extreme events like droughts and cyclones.

The delta region has a total geographical area of 14.5 lakh hectares and constitutes 11 percent of Tamil Nadu. The districts of Thanjavur, Thiruvarur and Nagapattinam make up Tamil Nadu’s delta region and it is in three villages Sellur, Valavanallur and Tholuvur of the Thiruvarur district where Jyoti is studying the well-being of farming households.

Talking about the study area, she says, “Despite the prevalence of water stress in this region the farmers in the three villages still trust paddy. On the other hand we see an increased dependence on ground water. Borewell owners have increased cropping intensity on their land.  In the long run this practice will only aggravate the water crisis.” These villages could offer an insight into agrarian changes that have already become a norm in other parts of the delta region.

Jyoti will be employing farmer questionnaire surveys, interviews and household case studies for her research. She has begun her field study with Participatory Rural Appraisals (PRA)  in the villages. PRA helps in understanding resource distribution and agrarian change in these villages. These tools were developed in the 1980s as part of action research and community engagement programmes in the Global South and aim to empower communities in understanding and addressing their issues, so as to find local solutions, to seek changes in their current situation.

In Sellur for instance, women of a Self Help Group (SHG)  mapped resources of their village. The village resource mapping exercise provided Jyoti with information about the structure of the village as well as the available resources. Sellur like other villages in the delta region has streets divided on the basis of caste and tools like the village resource mapping allow researchers to understand how different caste groups in the village interact with each other and share common resources such as ponds.

Access to a pond, distance from the nearest water source and availability of other sources of water like wells are deeply embroiled in caste dynamics.  This exercise not only provides information to researchers about social hierarchy prevalent in the village but also makes the community aware of them. 

Another PRA tool that was employed in Sellur was the ‘Seasonal Calendar’, where the villagers documented annual patterns in their livelihood activities, seasonal agricultural and non-agricultural workload, changes in rainfall pattern and cropping cycle. Through this exercise, the growing prevalence of migration was observed indicating a shift to non-agricultural employment due to lower incomes from paddy cultivation.

PRA helped Jyoti understand agrarian changes that have not just been propelled by extraneous factors but also by historical and social constructs like caste. PRA also gave Jyoti an opportunity to break ice with the villagers and provided insights on collective decisions on land use, agriculture and livelihoods.