Tagore – an economic messiah, economist or entrepreneur we know least

Wafiur Rahman
Thursday, October 19th, 2017

Tagore with some of his earliest disciples at Shantiniketan. Photo - Internet


Rabindranath Tagore, known worldwide for winning Nobel Prize on literature, had close relations with farmers in Pabna, Kushtia and Naogaon districts. He opened schools for their children and requested other zaminders to give attention to public education and health. He founded banks. Rabindranath helped introduce modern farming equipment. He still felt that only agriculture could not help develop villages and living standard of rural masses. So, he initiated the concept of cottage industries.


Some eminent researchers on the life and works of Rabindranath have suggested that his writings on economic issues should be included in the curriculum of higher education and the economics departments at universities should include in their curriculums the writings that reflect Tagore’s socioeconomic thoughts and philosophy. The study on Rabindranath has been going on partially while the focus was narrowed down on his novels, short stories and songs only, they observed.


The researchers made some reflections on Rabindranath’s socioeconomic ideology on the eve of his 153rd birth anniversary a few years back. Among the researchers were former Bangladesh Bank Governor Dr Atiur Rahman, Tagore exponent Ahmed Rafiq and a professor of Bengali Department of Dhaka University Rafique Ullah Khan.


Dr Atiur Rahman acknowledged that he follows Rabindranath in driving his vision for inclusive growth. ‘We need electricity, but that should be for all,’ the poet once wrote in an essay, clearly reflecting the idea of inclusive growth. Most of these essays are included in the book named ‘Atmashakti’ (self- esteem). But least we read this book and that is why a few are aware that the poet pioneered rural banking like today’s Grameen Bank, introduced the idea of financial inclusion and inclusive growth and adopted modern technologies in our agriculture sector.


‘I came to know Rabindranath’s thoughts on socio-economy when I started reading the essays of the poet,’ said Dr Rahman. ‘Rabindranath established a close relation with the farmers during his stay in the than east Bengal, an area covering Pabna, Kushtia and Naogaon districts.’


The poet truly describes his thoughts about the country’s society, economy and culture, from which anyone can take the clue for framing an effective development strategy for the country, said Dr Rahman, who wrote a few books on Tagore’s thinking and ideology about economy, agriculture and environments. ‘Rabindranath beyond the usual literary frame was a creation of the life and the nature of the East Bengal,’ he said clarifying that his way of thinking about life got a new dimension after he came to this country to look after his family’s zamindari.


‘I was born in a town and grew up with no idea about the rural life. However, coming to the East Bengal was an eye opening move, and I was ashamed because of my lack of knowledge about the struggle of the rural people. I asked myself what I did for these people and then decided to do something for them.’


With this new feeling and realisation, Rabindranath wrote to the neighbouring zamindars: ‘Please be kind to these people and give attention to their education and health.’ Hardly anyone paid heed to the request. ‘Many of them ignored the request, but I thought I should do something for the poor people.’


The poet established a Samiti in Patisar under which some schools were opened in the neighborhoods for free education to the children of the farmers. The schools were funded mainly by the revenue income of the Tagore estate and the other estates of the areas. Some well-off farmers also regularly contributed to the schools.


Rabindranath noticed that many farmers were losing a huge amount of their hard-earned money to money lenders in absence of institutional financial supports. So, he established a bank in Patisar for lending money to the farmers who used to count high rate of interest for borrowing money from rural money lenders (mahajans). For this bank, Rabindranath took deposit from the farmers who were the subjects of his ‘zamindari’ and also gave them loan at around 12% rate of interest against the deposit rate of 8.0%.


Farmers were very happy at the services of the bank as it helped them get rid of the trap of high rate of interest for borrowing money from the rural money lenders. The bank, however, was closed in 1935 under the State Acquisition and Bengal Tenancy Act. Rabindranath then established another similar bank in his Shantiniketan under the name of Sri Niketan. The banks were the core concept of the Grameen (rural) and cooperative banks.


Rabindranath was aware that only agriculture could not spur the economic growth unless it is supported by industrial diversification. On many occasions, he wrote to his son Rathindranath Tagore that only agriculture could not help develop villages and living standard of the rural people.


He also brought attention of his son to the prospect of setting up a cottage industry in Patisar. ‘The soil is solid in this area. This soil could be used to produce various types of goods, kitchen appliances and decoration pieces if the potters are provided with necessary trainings.’


He advised his son to bring an expert potter from Kolkata who would train the rural potters in Patisar.  Eventually, Rabindranath established a cottage industry in Patisar and launched a coordinated effort with farm and non-farm initiatives for the development of the rural economy.


‘Farmers alone cannot develop the agriculture sector unless their initiatives are supported by the science and technology,’ he wrote and gave an example of lighting up lamp with Veranda oil. ‘We cannot light our lamp up with Verenda oil forever. For that we need electricity and that should be for all.’


These examples reflect that Rabindranath realised long before many economists that the demand in the economy would not be vibrant without coordination between crop and non-crop sectors.


Like economists, the poet saw opportunities even in a situation of extreme poverty. He wrote: ‘There are many poor countries around the world. But I would like to say that the country is really poor where people do not try to be rich by generating their income.’


The Nobel laureate also wrote about the importance of women empowerment and their education. He came close to the rural women during his stay in a boat on Padma River in Kushtia. Many rural women came to have bath in the river when they used to talk to each other about their personal and family life. The conversation women prompted the poet to think about women empowerment. In his Letters from Russia, the poet highly lauded the women education of the than Soviet Union with the concluding remark: ‘Education is the highway of civilization.’


He believes that the highest education is that which does not merely give us information but makes our life in harmony with all existence.


Ahmed Rafiq said, ‘We should study the essays of Tagore to understand the importance and necessity of his philosophy in individual and national life.’ He expressed his concern that the young generation hardly knows about Rabindranath’s thoughts and ideology on economy, society and agriculture because they only enjoy the songs, dance-drama, stories and novels of Rabindranath.


‘So, we should institutionalize the study on entire Rabindranath, which would benefit the society and nation,’ said Rafiq, who wrote many books on Tagore’s works on socioeconomic aspects.


‘Our life is dominated by economy, and Rabindranath left us his works to know about economy, agriculture and society beside the wide range of his creative literature,’ said Rafique Ullah Khan, a professor at Dhaka University.


Referring that the current educational curriculum is limited to Rabindranath’s literature, he said, ‘We should include Rabindranath’s writings and works on economy, agriculture and society at higher studies.’


Citing that Rabindranath spent a portion of his Nobel Prize money for the wellbeing of farmers of Bangladesh (the than east Bengal), Khan said this also indicated Tagore’s dedication to the welfare of common people.

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