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Rural Development & Energy Policy: Lessons from Agricultural Mechanisation in South Asia

The purpose of this paper is to reopen policy debates on the role of agricultural mechanisation in rural development. The paper examines very different and diverse patterns of agricultural mechanisation in some South Asian countries over the last 30 years


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The purpose of this paper is to reopen policy debates on poverty reduction, mechanisation, worthwhile jobs and livelihoods in rural areas. In particular, to highlight the critical role of engineering, energy and trade policy in influencing agricultural and rural mechanisation processes that can help rural poverty reduction. As such, the paper is concerned with the welfare of poor people living in rural areas and the rural engineering and mechanisation dimensions of this. This concern is based, in part, on the recognition that globally, it is in rural areas that the greatest numbers of poor people live and, on the demographic projections and propositions that no amount of “urban” development or the promotion of international “remittance economies” to provide employment for people from rural areas, has the capacity to provide worthwhile jobs, safety nets and services for rural people.

This concern with rural development takes us back to the central issues of development policy debates of the 1960s and 1970s, where sustained rural development was seen as an important goal of public policy. In those debates rural and agricultural mechanisation, employment, inter-sector linkages, multiplier effects, and decentralised rural economic growth were central themes to the discussions.

However, since then we have seen the selective promotion of a neoliberal agenda by international agencies and governments and the debates on mechanisation have declined. Where agriculture has been discussed, policy and academic attention has been given to the past role of seeds and associated agricultural inputs such as pesticides, fertiliser and, sometimes, irrigation and the role of rural and agricultural mechanisation and energy policy receiving far less attention.

In the West, departments of agricultural engineering were going through challenging times. Institutes in universities and engineering departments in the centres of the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) were closed, the latest, in 2007, the FAO’s Agricultural Engineering Directorate. The lack of mechanisation policy analysis is illustrated by the exclusion of agricultural and farm mechanisation issues in the International

Assessment of Agricultural Science & Technology and Development (IAASTD, 2008) and the Global Conference for Agriculture Research for Development (GCARD March 2010). While there was some support for alternative engineering interests in Universities in Asia and promotion of alternative energy initiatives around such things as cooking stove improvements, small scale food processing, biogas, and mini/meso hydro, general interest in these types of alternatives declined, especially as regards being integrated in a substantial way into 2 mainstream policy support .

Notwithstanding the lack of policy debates in South Asia during this time, there have been great transformations in agricultural mechanisation in different regions. As we will see, this has taken place in very diverse ways and helped give rise to widely different outcomes.

The structure of this paper is first to describe, briefly, some major agricultural mechanisation changes in South Asia. Then, to look in more detail at Nepal to illustrate the importance of the location specificity of contemporary mechanisation policy debates not only for the more obvious agro-climatic reasons, but also for the equally, if not more, important economic, historical, political, cultural and other institutional dimensions of policy practice. We conclude the paper by referring back to some of the debates of the 1970s to see what issues are old and what are new. This paper concentrates on diesel based patterns of mechanisation as these are the dominant power sources for the machinery currently in use. In the future, alternative sources of energy for powering agriculture and rural machinery will become more important. National and international energy policies and agreements will play a major role in influencing these patterns and how benefits and costs are distributed.

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