This year after the unprecedented onslaught of COVID-19 across the world, the global economy is now in dire straits.
In Bangladesh, a country with a largely agrarian economy, this reality becomes more prominent because, in the current context, it is the rural economy that can save the people right now.
To revisit the very date of Rabindranath Tagore's birthday, famously known as 25 Boishakh, I shall reminisce about his contribution to rural Bengal and his effort to alleviate sufferings of the poor during the British rule. Tagore grasped that if the fate of the poor is not secure, any effort to building a healthy and functional society would be completely futile.
Rabindranath Tagore, a lighthouse of the Bengalis, is best known for his unforgettable creations in literature. From his childhood, unlike other creative artists, Tagore became very aware of the economic state of undivided India.
A member of a family of landlords in united Bengal, Rabindranath spent most of his time at the village with rural people, from where he contemplated how the poor may be set free from the trap of poverty. Tagore's thought on rural construct developed during colonial rule because of his frequent visit to the Purba Bangla, as a part of his family work.
He was highly sensitive in spite of the bourgeoisies' tradition he inherited. Rabindranath never thought of himself as a ruler or Zamindar in a true sense. His soul cried for the sufferings of the destitute, which inspired him to write poems and essays on their indescribable sorrow and deprivation.
When Gandhi advocated for the charka in order to boost up the poor economy, Tagore proposed alternative economics in reducing human drudgery and poverty. He wrote, "the imposing tower of misery which today rests on the heart of India has its sole foundation in the absence of education", emphasizing on the importance of education.
His economic thoughts originated from Raja Ram Mohan Roy, the founder of Brahmaa Samaj, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Prem Chad Lal, Gobinda Ranade, Horace Plunkett, Gavrilo Kojick, H. G. Timbers, Daniel Hamilton, and Leonard K. Elmhirst.
During his visit to East Bengal, he had extensive interaction with the people, who were mostly illiterate, superstitious, depressed and socially deprived. His writings on the poor, working people have extensively tracked down the pangs of the poor.
Tagore's thoughts and observations have been nicely inserted in his various poems, essays, autobiographies and dance dramas. Besides, he undertook some big ventures to fight inequality and deprivation.
He understood that the economy of Bengal was based on agriculture, and its main driving forces were the poor workers. He believed colonization had crippled rural economy and destroyed the morale of the mass peasant.
Farmers were in a vicious debt trap, borrowing money from landlords with a high interest rate, while health, education and social integration suffered. He also observed that tenant farmers were being deprived by the owners and their crops were ultimately grabbed by the rich hoarders.
Tagore's idea of rural development comes from his patriotic heart. He opined "We have to take village law and order in our hands. We have to teach, to preserve, to save the sons of the peasants, and will handle the development of agriculture ourselves." Moreover, he stressed the need to restore farmers' land and dignity so that they can understand and unleash their own potential and vigor.
He writes in a poem, "They do their job" (Ora kaj kore) on February 13 in 1941, "they do their job for ever/ they row the boat/ they put their hand to the plough/ they sow seeds in fields/ and wander all corners of villages and towns."
In 1905, Tagore established the Agricultural Bank at Patisar, where he deposited most of his earnings, including his Nobel Prize money and also the earnings received from his performance of songs, dance drama, etc. In 1927 this bank was turned into the Viswa-Bharati Central Cooperative Bank.
He thought that without technological advancement, rural life, as well as agriculture, would never gain appropriate momentum. He advocated the use of tractors and threshers and sent his son Rathindranath to the Illinois University, USA, to pursue higher education in agriculture.
In 1909, he established an agricultural farm near Shiladah Kuti Bari, acquiring 80-bighas of vested land. Surprisingly, he also established a laboratory of soil testing there, where modern equipment was used to increase production.
Rabindranath experimented with some improvised rice and maize brought from America and Madras respectively. In spite of huge loss in potato cultivation, he didn't get disheartened. Instead, learning from failure, he encouraged farmers to produce more. He encouraged the farmers to cultivate various types of crops such as banana, potato, date palm, fruit trees, pineapple, etc.
In 1908, he made an appeal to peasants to grow in their homestead land, on the boundaries of the fields.
Around 1922, he established Surul Farm, livestock farming, at Sriniketan. There was also an agricultural research centre where large numbers of crops and vegetables were grown. Tagore himself sowed Chinese nuts, chilly, rice along with others.
Meanwhile, Tagore visited Russia to understand how they produce crops using technology and how modern farming is done there. After learning from there, he started to produce different types of crops such as sugarcane, cauliflower, soya bean, papaw, beet, carrot, cotton, guava, etc.
Between 1928 and 1933, Tagore's work in farming and agricultural extension was extensive as he went on to establish dairy farms, poultry and livestock. Furthermore, he established a "grain bank" to help poor people and poverty-stricken peasants. This grain bank would help the poor meet any emergency and acute food crisis, he proposed. Interestingly, he started to arrange Katyani mela at Shiladah every year to sell all the agricultural products grown there.
Rabindranath Tagore was a visionary poet, a far-sighted activist, and a legendary philosopher of the East. He was concerned about the people, their health, education, sanitation and gender inequalities.
His talent was not only confined to words, his literary vision was not only guided by his mesmeric art, his philosophy was not only centered within lyrical intonation.
He wrote for entertainment, wrote for changing society. Rabindranath Tagore's persistent efforts to create sustainable rural development and eco-ethical human living is very relevant now, as we rely on the agrarian economy heavily once again.
I am indebted to Dr. Debesh Bhowmik of International Institute for Development Studies, Kolkata, for much information.
The author is a professor of Philosophy at Jagannath University