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To Tagore serving rural societies was serving the nation
Nobel Prize Laureate, Rabinranath Tagore, is revered as an apotheosis of Bengali literature, having tremendous influence on the culture of Bangladesh and India. In his early days, Tagore learnt to understand the rural societies as the foundation for serving the country. He believed that the best way of serving the societies was to encourage rural poor to embrace ‘self-help’. You may find nowadays this idea is advocated by many development agencies.
The way Tagore understood village life
In his early age, Tagore used to write about Bengali native culture and tradition. He was often attracted by traditional music, art and crafts. He gradually internalised the rural cultural and tradition as the entities of his development ideas. This realisation made him to believe that the best way to serve the country was to make the rural poor aware of taking the responsibility of their own development, which he phrased as ‘self-help’ development. In 1883, he explicitly explained the strength of ‘self-help’ development in an article and continued developing this idea.
Sad reality of village life
in the early 1890, when he began to look after the family Zamindary in rural Bengal, Tagore learnt about the practical aspect of rural life. He was shocked to observe the depressing situation of the people, who were poor, demoralised, and they were his tenants. He was now facing the reality: collecting rent from them who hardly could manage a square meal in a day, which was more heart-breaking and also shameful. He noted, 'the sufferings of the people became more and more intertwined with my daily work.' He mourned, 'it is embarrassing that I should spend my days being a Zamindar, taking care of only money-making and remain preoccupied exclusively for my own profit and loss'. His guilty feeling stirred his mind to learn in-depth about the causes of people’s unfortunate situation.
Past welfare system in villages
He remembered, in the past wealthy people took pride of taking care of the village well-being and in creating bondage with rural people. With enthusiasm, they ran school, excavated pond, organised religious festival, arranged public entertainment. While these benevolent activities earned them public respect, the villagers were benefited in maintaining social, economic and religious harmonies.
Damage to the welfare system
The British Colonial Government replaced village traditional welfare system with its centralised administration. The wealthy people were now more attracted to the comfort of city life, abandoning their important role of safeguarding rural welfare system. Many wealthy people became absentee landlords by keeping their properties with hired caretakers, who were only keen to collect rents but not to take care of rural welfare, which was resulting in breaking off the welfare system and ushering poverty.
Waking up rural people
Tagore was conclusive about making rural poor aware of their development. He considered that waking the people would be the reliable foundation for rural development, which he called ‘rural reconstruction’. While different country’s strength of ‘resurrection’ laid in different areas, he knew Indian’s strength stored right in rural societies. Development must begin there, by its own people, not depending on the outsiders. He believed, 'We may get many things by begging from the British, but never to get self reliance. If it is obtained by begging that can never last; what is achieved by our own efforts has permanence.'
Essence of village reconstruction
As time went by, his thinking for the disadvantaged rural people was becoming stronger. In 1904, he published an article expressing a comprehensive statement of his developmental philosophy: reconstruction of rural life by ‘self-help’ that was to wake up the poor people’s mind for liberating their god-gifted creativity. The force of the creativity would sustain their sense of independence to pursue their own development. This dynamism would also embrace the fundamental problem as a whole, not as a piecemeal, and work for it with joy. 'Our sphere of activities lays near us and around us, at our homes and in our neighbourhood.'
Decetralising his Zamindary administration
Foremost, Tagore decentralised his Zamindary administration to make it easy accessible to the tenants. He opened a number of offices in rural areas. While kept few staff in the central office, he placed many workers in offices in rural areas. There they should be observing people’s daily struggle, sharing people’s major concerns and taking part in community development. The placement of the rural workers effectively helped the people to save time and resources from going to the central office and to receive instant, on-the-spot advice and assistances.
Credit to poor tenants
In the early 1890s, Tagore attempted to improve the financial situation of poor tenants by establishing agricultural banks. These banks offered credits to tenants considering the causes of poverty, for example, seasonality, indebtedness, crop-failure and basic needs. The close by rural workers assisted the tenants in assessing the loan considering the actual need and easy repayment. The tenants were given a loan at 9 percent interest and were encouraged to clear it right after the crop harvest, and when they did it, the bank wrote off 3 percent as an acknowledgement to their readiness of making on-time repayment.
He believed that awareness is a fundamental key to development. All children and adults must have the knowledge of self-consciousness about village life and world development. He established more than two hundred traditional nursery and elementary schools, know as Tols and Patshalas, for the children. There were also day and night primary schools for the children and adults both men and women. They learnt reading, writing and arithmetic and, at later stage, history and geography covering India and the world. They were given practical lessons on first aid, agriculture, fire-fighting and service to cyclone and flood victims. The teachers and the village workers led them towards self-respect, confidence and encouraged them to act cooperatively.
Re-establishing village-based welfare system
Tagore dreamt of healthy and peaceful life of villagers. Life-threatening epidemics caused major damage to people’s life. He arranged hospitals and dispensaries in different areas, where doctors and nurses were providing free treatments and healthcare. Excavating ponds for daily washing, sinking tube-wells for fresh drinking water, building and repairing roads for easy communication and clearing jungles and ditches for eliminating malaria were regularly adopted. Tagore introduced an arbitration system to settle disputes in village without going to far away law-courts, and a report, published in 1915-16 noted its success.
Innovative fund raising
Tagore set an ingenious way of generating welfare fund. To ensure regular treatments and medicines, he bore half of the total cost, and the rest half came from villagers. The labour for excavating ponds to clearing jungles was coming from the direct physical labour of the villagers, and those who were unable they paid an amount of money matching the labour cost to the welfare fund. Villagers were encouraged to contribute to the welfare fund by saving money not spending too much money to observe festivals. He also encouraged the villagers to donate cost of offering public feast for any social offence to the welfare fund.