As I was riding pillion, Anup kept telling me how mobile phones, especially smartphones, have changed the lives of rural folks. “TVs and cell phones have brought about a bewildering array of changes in values and aspirations of the villagers,” he said.
I was reminded of Tagore’s speech titled Robbery of the soil, which he had delivered at Calcutta University in 1922. “Villages are nearer to nature than towns and therefore in closer touch with the fountain of life. They have the atmosphere which possesses a natural power of healing. It is the function of the village to provide people with their elemental needs, with food and joy, with the simple poetry of life and with those ceremonies of beauty which the village spontaneously produces and in which she finds delight.”
Had Tagore been alive today, he would have changed his notion of villages. That simplicity and spontaneity of village folks are rarely seen today, thanks to the ubiquitous TVs and cell phones. According to the National Sample Survey Office, rural Indians use up to a quarter of cell phone companies’ income. Some 20 per cent of rural Indians (about 180 million people) access the internet on a regular basis and some 90 per cent of them do so from handheld devices.
There is no gainsaying that disempowered rural masses have now the means to find out and do things for themselves. But the technology has torn the fabric of tradition. It has also led to the stripping off the essential simplicity and spontaneity of the villagers— the qualities Tagore had glorified.
However, Tagore was accurate a century ago, warning us about the perils of a consumer driven, resource exploitative, wealth gap accelerating, ecologically devastating and unsustainable model of economic development. He stated how development was measured by ever increasing extraction of resource faster than the planet’s capacity to replenish, where mind-boggling levels of individual material wealth for a select few at the expense of the masses and the planet was being touted as a sign of progress.
In his speech at Calcutta University, he also cautioned us on how society was being pushed into spiritual poverty, and where public opinion and perception were being manufactured through incessant advertisement and dulling of the mind’s capacity of independent judgement. All these were being touted as the new gods of modernism, and were leading us to both an ecological catastrophe and a social suicide, he said.
Tagore also spoke of the need not just to find balance and equity in resources and how not to deplete it faster than the planet’s capacity to replenish, but also the need for the urban society to also put back equivalent amount that it takes away from humanity in its drive for “development”.