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Cover Story

Tagore's Recipe for Self-Sufficiency

Atiur Rahman

While cultural and spiritual stimulation dominated Tagore's life, the realms of international politics, nationalism and development greatly interested his mind. Although being born into wealth and remaining a member of the elite, Tagore was not impervious to the hardship and misery of his poor compatriots. During the time he acted as manager of the family Estate (Zamindari) in East Bengal, he had occasion to come in close and empathetic contact with the poverty-stricken people. The indelible mark that illiteracy, ill health, hunger, privation and bondage made on his psyche at that time spurred him to myriads of activities for the rest of his life. He finally chose Santiniketan for the spread of education and culture. But he was not oblivious of the plight of the potters whose lot he tried to ameliorate. He rushed here and there to find ways and means to make the common people free from the curse of deprivation, illiteracy and ill health. He was a widely travelled man. Whatever constructive ideas and actions he noticed abroad (e.g., co-operative in Ireland or education system in Russia), he pondered on how to apply them for the betterment of the deprived of his own land. He made sure his son received a higher degree in agriculture. He himself made various experiments on rural development. It is pertinent, therefore, that we examine the life and works of Rabindranath to find solutions to problems of poverty in our country.

It is interesting and useful therefore to examine various dimensions of poverty and put this in the context of socio-economic ideas of Tagore. To begin with, Rabindranath knew perfectly well that without poverty reduction all our attempts at social development would be futile. To face this deadly enemy he advised that we should rely upon individual creativity and equity. Philosopher and social thinker that he was, he said, "if we can't find remedy on poverty, we shall be beaten on all fronts. We must understand the simple truth that every man has resources within him. If we can appreciate and apply this, we can find a way out of poverty" (R. Tagore, `Samabay-2', Collected Works of Tagore, Vol. XIV, p.318).

How poverty found its place in Tagore's thinking ?
How could Rabindranath, a Zamindar's son, come to know of the affliction and privation of the sons of this soil is a question that surprised many. Here is Humayun Kabir's rejoinder:

"Rabindranath proved soon enough that in putting his son in charge of his Zamindari, his father made a wise decision. As a result, for many years he travelled far and wide in the countryside of East Bengal. For much of this time he made a barge at Padma his temporary home. Here he came in deep communion with the environs and the people of rural Bangladesh. The life-style he observed here is deeply implanted in the pristine and ancient history of this region. The folk-culture is much older than the urban culture of the middle ages (see Kabir, H, Rabindranath Thakur, Ekushe Publications, Dhaka 2000, p.16-17, translated by Hayat Mamud).

While discharging his duties as superintendent of the family property, he imperceptibly got involved in the trials and tribulations of the common man. With deep sympathy and insight he wrought them into his works of art. On the other hand he took up various projects to relieve them from their plight. He dedicated money and material towards the establishment of a craftsman's village in Sriniketan just adjacent to Santiniketan. He writes:

"As long as I was in the country side, I had a mind to know her intimately.... Observing the day-to-day life and activities of the rural people welled my heart with curiosity. Born and raised in urban culture, I was catapulted into the idyllic beauty of the countryside. I satisfied my curiosity with heart felt joy. As the penurious, sordid life of the rural people was looming large, a determination to alleviate them made me restless. That I was doing business called Zamindari, busying myself with personal profit and loss, put me in great shame. From then on, I tried ways on how to rouse their mind, how to enthuse them to take care of themselves. Helping them as outsiders will do them no good. How to vitalise them was my concern." (Tagore, R, Collected Works, Vol. XIV, p. 378).

This deep realisation found expression in many of his speeches and writings. The philosophical aspect of poverty aside, how to remove the obvious reality of poverty was constantly in his thoughts, speeches and writings. The purpose of this paper is to introduce some of those creative ideas of Rabindranath and relate this with contemporary development thinking.

Rabindranath never believed that poverty is a sheer lack of income. He always placed it in a bigger perspective, saw it in its totality. Many modern economists now accept the multi-facetedness of poverty. This is very clear in Amartya Sen writings (see particularly his book `Development as Freedom'). That poverty is a complex subject and its alleviation much more so is clearly expressed by Tagore. He says:

"... the genesis of poverty can be traced in our inadequate knowledge, faulty reasoning, evil customs and weak character. All aspects of the ways of our life must be grasped together to eradicate poverty root and branch. If the problem is knotty, its solution cannot be simple either." (Collected Works, Vol. XIV, p.331).

In his quest for the origin of poverty, he laid quite an emphasis on the poverty of our mind. To him, human despair is much worse than social injustice and economic poverty. Therefore it is important to build proper mental attitude. So he felt that the poor must be organised and united. Stray scuffle with poverty is not enough. Occasional help from outside will not alleviate our poverty and privation. It must be eradicated from within. He believed :

"It is not enough to eliminate from outside the indicators of poverty, rather we have got to obliterate them of within. That requires two things. One, educate the common mass so that they can communicate with other people of the world, since isolation from the world made them rustics, ostracised. When they can think great, they will feel at one with the rest of mankind. This will earn them self-esteem. Second, they should be organised in their quest for livelihood and this work should complement with other people of the world" (op cit., p.316).

Knowledge today has received enormous importance as a driving force in world economy. Despite the weaknesses of globalisation, many nations, through the deft application of their knowledge, have expanded the export of their merchandise and services. Through a cadre of knowledge workers they have used education as an important tool for self-development.

Rabindranath had thoughts on such a possibility as expressed in his 'Letters from Russia'. Besides, he spoke and wrote on the value of life-oriented education. Taking a cue from his thoughts, we must accept education as an important element of our poverty reduction strategy.

Besides education, he lay stress on the inner strength and creativity of a society. He then poses a question, 'the majority are poor; the rich are few in number. That's the pattern in every country. Then why should we term a country as poor?" (op. cit., p.313). He concludes that it is not lack of money but of confidence which generates poverty. And confidence is generated if people are organised. A solitary man is a very weak man. Poverty can strike him anytime.

Tagore, with a young learner at Shantiniketan (1938).

Says he, "When a person fails to be in unisom with others, he too becomes insignificant. Purposeful union with fellow beings makes him a complete man. A single person is a scared person. We know from experience that in our childhood when we were alone at the reading table we were afraid of ghosts. This fear is the fear of a lonely person's own weakness. Three-fourths of our fear is rooted here. The most important point is we did not have a sense of togetherness. If one is aloof from another and the rest he or she is bound to be fearful of uncertainly. If we look closely, we shall see that the fear of poverty is also like the fear of a ghost. We can dispel it if we are organised, united. Whatever big and valuable man has achieved, be it knowledge, wealth, power, or religion he achieved it through collective strength. A sandy soil does not yield good crop. It cannot stick together. So it can not contain moisture. It is a poor soil. To alleviate the poverty of such soil we must mix with it silts, rotten leaves, so it can stick together and remain tightened. Such also is man. If individuals are disunited, their strength is useless." (op. cit. p. 313).

Organised unity may be termed as social power, which in other words is social capital. Once our society had this capital in abundance. How it sparks in times of stress! In 1971 and 1998 we saw how people were united to face common disaster. That is why we overcame those terrible social and economic disasters. We won because we were united.

If people do not feel inner urge towards human welfare, no coersion will help. Robbing the rich and helping the poor has never been the ultimate solution. Rabindranath also was against this. "The wealth of the rich has no power to wipe out poverty," he says, "it is dormant in the potentials of the poor themselves. This must be transparent to all. It is of no use in distributing wealth in a pretentious way; they must produce wealth the harder way. .... Every man has inner craving for enjoying wealth. It can not be throttled. This craving should be ratified for the total good or it will degenerate in stringency" (op. cit., p.318).

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the views of Rabindranath have been gaining more significance. If the inherent dignity of man is not respected while organising them towards a higher goal, the petty selfishness of the individuals will fetter them. They will not have creativity. If a balance is not struck between the good of one and the good of all, it will breed crisis in society and in economy.

Rabindranath was keenly aware that inequity breeds poverty. But he thinks that coercion can not eliminate inequity. He says: "The solution lies not in robbing the rich nor spurring them to charity. It lies in enthusing all to use their potential to generate wealth." (op. cit., p. 330) At the same time he believes that concentration of all power in one place is not normally tenable.

"Bare existence on a square meal," he says, "cannot be enough for a man. Its rather an insult. Every one needs to have enough surpluses, of wealth and time, to nurse his human potentials. Today the onus of upholding human dignity rests on a few. But the onus of maintaining these few rests on the unwilling labour of many.... We belittle the great harm the process is producing. We have no more time to be callous. There are signs of social upheaval everywhere in the world. This is an omen that the unfulfilled power of the many imprisoned so long in a narrow space of inactivity is bursting at the seams. This energy must be released" (op. cit. p. 330).

What may be deduced from his thoughts is that a positive environment should be created for individuals to earn their income and enhance their capability further. The dormant possibilities in them should be released to convert their ability into wealth, retrieve their abilities and re-invest them. So what we need is atmosphere of optimism, of good governance, good morals and quality education. It's a total attitude. The imperative is total resistance to poverty. It is not a listing of assessed needs from outside but saturation of dried up human faculties. We need channeling of the united constructive energy. To quote from Tagore again: "When the entire village is ablaze, it is futile to try and extinguish it with exhalation." What we need is a magic word to unify all. We need

Tagore believed that the solution to poverty lay in inspiring all to use their potential to generate wealth

social power and mobilisation of social capital. This capital will be accumulation through education and technology. Its use in poverty alleviation will have to be more focussed. Rabindranath repeatedly speaks of modern technology. He was in favour of replacing a bullock cart with a motor car. He advocated electric light to replace castor oil fed torch. He was in favour of reducing inequity, mobilising the elements and means of energy and distributing it to the common people. He had well-defined propositions towards mass-participation in everything and devaluation of administrative and social power.

His suggestions include:
Organising rural bodies, forming co-operatives, starting self-rule at least in one village, associating the educated youths to social development activities and involving social power in environmental conservation.

The polity and economy of Bangladesh centres round the village. Without a meaningful local administration system, the country cannot progress. Nowadays we harp on a dynamic, effective local self-government system about which Rabindranath had a clear vision:

"Each and every village of the country has to be so developed that it has the capacity to meet all its needs. A few villages have to be grouped into a cluster. If the heads of individual clusters are able to organise activities for all the local needs of the clusters, and can make the cluster self-sufficient, only then the concept of self-governance will become a reality. We have to support and encourage them to educate themselves so they can establish their own schools, industries, co-operative store, their banks.

Thus the villages will be self-reliant and unified and cease to be burdensome" (op. cit., p. 319).

Mere re-building of the rural agro-based economy is not enough. Land tenancy should be re-organised and agriculture modernised. Developing the innate potentiality of the people he indicates is the key to poverty alleviation:

"My objective was to rouse the confidence of the farmer in his own power. Two themes recurred in my mind. One, the title to land, in justice, does not belong to the landlord but to the cultivator. Two, there will be no improvement in agriculture without co-operative based collective farming. Tilling subdivided and fragmented lands with primitive ploughs is as futile as carrying water in a sieve." ('Letters from Russia', collected Works Vol. X, p. 562).

In emphasing agro-based production, cattle farming, poultry etc as strategies to poverty alleviation he was a pioneer. In 1906 he sent abroad his son Rathindranath and his friend's son Santosh Majumder for higher studies in agriculture. In 1907 he sent abroad Nagan Gangulee, his son-in-law to study scientific farming and animal husbandry. He writes an inspiring letter to his son-in-law:

"If you want to be a co-worker with Rathin, the field is ready. You can start co-operative farming with cultivators, help establish them a bank, provide them healthy habitats, build roads, make embankment, organise them all as supportive associates. The list is endless" Rabindranat Tagore, "Palli Prakiti" Calcutta 1962, p. 232).

No doubt, poverty alleviation is a pre-condition for development. And what are the pre-conditions for poverty alleviation? Says Rabindranath, "We have but a small capital. So, we must have proper education and patience before we can invest it" (op. cit. p. 354). What is a proper education? For more than thirty years now we have prepared and rejected a series of education policies simply on grounds of mindless politicisation. But Tagore could strike at the basic principle: "Our education must aim of providing us with a wealth not of only of information, but of truth; not simply the fuel, but the fire" (ibid, p. 355).

He is at once in favour of modern technology. The common people should be allowed the opportunity to enjoy the benefit of the fabulous development in 21st century's technological advancement. We have already seen that Rabindranath preferred the age of electricity to that of castor oil. The use of technology towards poverty alleviation is akin to that urge.

To day we are concerned about environmental disaster. Environmental imbalance intensifies poverty. Here is Tagore on environment : "...owing to deforestation a calamity is imminent. To escape this peril we have to propitiate the goddess of forest to protect our land, give us fruits and shade which are her blessing" (ibid, p. 373).

"When the entire village is ablaze, it is futile to try and extinguish it with exhalation." --Tagore

Rabindranath suggested to end poverty and privation as a matter of right of the poor. He emphasises on man to capacitate himself from within. Kindness and charity can not much change human condition. "Man will never accept any real benefit as a dole or as a debt. He accepts it only if he merits it." ("Lokehit" in Tagore's Collected Works, Joy Books International, Dhaka Vol. XII p. 148). To deserve what is due to them, they must be united. They should attain universal literacy. The change should be in the mind. Instead of petti fogging, they should have the inner capacity to quest for something big. That makes a nation great. He continues, "The sign of a prospering nation is that every department, every individual turns away from the pettiness. Every one is earning the right to human dignity. Man in that nation thinks on how everyone as individual can live a decent life, earn a quality education, have adequate food, clothing, medicare, and leisure" (ibid, p. 581). But to acquire that right one has to exert. Those who fell behind are the largest in number. They should be made to organise themselves so that they can assert their right. The world is rapidly changing. Globalisation is making inroad into our society and economy almost every moment. We must change ourselves to cope with it and face the challenge. Because, "internal impediment increases outward challenge. So, we should not await a dole from outside but exert ourselves. We shall wipe out indignity and achieve success" (ibid, p. 583).

The inherent inconsistency, inequity and injustice in society may prolong poverty, but despair and despondency is no less to blame. This is mental poverty and a person in isolation cannot eliminate it. This is the central point of Tagore's thinking on poverty. Tagore always felt that man should unite and get to work. Robbing the rich is not the way to riches. Our greatest challenge is to create our environment of confidence-building and opportunity where the poor can work their way out of poverty. The poor should be organised to realise equity oriented society and economy. The job of igniting their potentials should begin from within our tradition, our success should be our investment.

R. Tagore, Collected works of Tagore Vol. XIV
Kabir, H, Rabindranath Tagore, Ekushe Publications, Dhaka 2000, Translated by Hayat Mamud
Amarta Sen, 'Development as Freedom', Oxford University Press, 2000
R. Tagore, 'Letter from Russia' collected works of Tagore,Vol x
R. Tagore,`Palli Prakiti', Calcatta 1962, Bissho Bharati
R. Tagore,`Lokehit' Collected works of Tagore Vol XII, Joy Books International.
Atiur Rahman is an economist

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