Report from Sirsi, Karnataka, India

by Caroline Morris, MIT D-Lab Independent Study student, Wellesley '18

Carolne Morris and Pranav conducting an interview with a smallholder woman farmer.


During MIT's January Indepent Activities Period, I traveled with three students from the fall D-Lab: Development class, Viban Gonzales '20, Ellie Simonson '18, and Nikhil Kunapuli '18, and D-Lab Research Associate Megha Hegde to Sirsi, Karnataka, India to conduct an assessment in the surrounding rural villages. The goal of this assessment was to learn about the agricultural practices of smallholder farmers and the issues that they face. We interacted with over 100 smallholder tribal farmers through individual interviews and focus groups, and met with several different local cooperatives that provide services to these farmers.

What we learned

India is one of the largest producers of areca nuts in the world, known locally as betel nuts. According to India’s Ministry of Agriculture, the state of Karnataka produced about 59% of the country’s total crop in the 2015-16 season. During our assessment we found that most of the small farmers in the villages we visited grow rice on their land to feed their families, and work for wages on the betel nut plantations.

Cimber in a betel nut tree. 

In this region there are many areca nut tree plantations that hire skilled climbers to climb the trees and harvest the crop. The trees can grow up to 30 meters tall and are treacherous to climb, even for highly skilled climbers. The most frequent cause of injury and death each harvesting season is trees breaking while climbers are harvesting the nuts. Because the climbers use a harness that secures them to the tree while cutting the nuts down, a climber cannot detach himself when a tree breaks, causing him to fall with the tree. Here, with a group of farmers and betel tream climbers, we considered two approaches: create a technology that eliminates the need for skilled climbers or design a technology to make climbing safer. Our brainstorming revolved around designing a harness that can be quickly removed in an emergency and designing a system that supports the tree to prevent it from falling.

In addition to the dangers of betel nut tree climbing, the most prominent issue that caught my attention was water scarcity. Smallholder farmers are currently struggling to grow enough rice crop to feed their families and do not have any crop left over to sell. These farmers own very small amounts of land (an average of two to four acres), so it is imperative that they are able to harvest as much crop as possible. Due to a decline in the amount of rainfall over the past 10 to 15 years and a depleted water table, they are not able to do so. When we asked questions about irrigation, we found that none of the farmers we interviewed had any constant source of irrigation. Their biggest concern was the lack of drinking water in the summer season when their wells dry up. Because of this, irrigation is not their priority. However, if they had some form of irrigation, they could grow more rice and other crops during the dry season.

My experiences

Each trip I make to India with  D-Lab is just as much of a learning experience as the last. Many aspects have become familiar, such as the constant movement of animals and people on the streets, the Indian head-nod, and even the language. I was surprised at how much Hindi I could understand when we were in Uttarakhand, but Karnataka was a different story. Kannada is the language that is spoken in Karnataka, and it is completely different from Hindi. Compared to Hindi, it is spoken faster and is more difficult to decipher.

Karnataka is also a much different climate than Uttarakhand, covered mostly by a tropical jungle. We were able to visit some beautiful waterfalls and rivers, as well as go on a safari through the jungle. Sirsi is also Megha’s hometown, so she took us to the best pani puri shop in town — I am proud to say that I ate street food and did not get sick! Megha also brought us home and introduced us to her family, and of course Honey, her pug.

On our last day in Sirsi, we attended a Puja at Megha’s aunt’s house, which is a Hindu prayer ceremony done in the home to honor the gods and bring good fortune to the family. It was really special to have such a personal experience while in Sirsi. 


MIT team and Megha’s family after the Puja.