Tagore and ‘The Robbery of the Soil’

It is seven months since I posted anything on this blog because I’ve been preoccupied with completing a research project on Tagore’s English writings. Now I’m moving on, but also getting back, rather tentatively, to an old subject I used to be something of an expert on, which is land degradation and alternative land use methods, but looking at linking that topic with my interest in Tagore.

In 1922 Tagore and Leonard Elmhirst addressed students at Calcutta University on the subject of ‘The Robbery of the Soil’. Elmhirst, the agriculturist, concentrated on how ‘[t]he city takes all and returns little or nothing of real value to the soil’.[1]Tagore, the humanist, talked about the importance of replenishing what you take from society as well as what you take from the soil: ‘We are as much the children of the soil as of the human society. If we fail to make commensurate returns for what society contributes to nurture our mind and spirit, then we shall only exploit, and, in time, exhaust what society gives us.[2]

Over twenty years ago, before I first heard of Tagore, my major concern was land degradation, which I first read about in a book called ‘Topsoil and Civilization’,[3] which explains how intensive agriculture to supply the elite populations of cities has been causing soil erosion since ancient times. I used to give talks on the subject, illustrated by pictures of how intensive cultivation degrades the soils around the world. In the discussion which followed a talk, I would ask people ‘What needs to change?’ and ‘What can you or I do about these problems?’ The answer to the first question was almost always ‘Attitudes need to change!’ The second question was more difficult for people, because in our urban society, most of us are so alienated from the land we have no idea what’s happening and what we could do. Often people then would bring up the usual personal responses to concerns about ‘the environment’, such as recycling paper and glass – nothing to do with soil erosion. Today I think there would be a little more understanding, and people would say things about local food, which is of course relevant.

Tagore was present at Elmhirst’s lecture about ‘The Robbery of the Soil’, so we know he was aware of land degradation then, if not before from other sources. Leonard Elmhirst may have learned about the concerns when he studied agricultural economics in America. Tagore knew about the importance of trees and he introduced tree planting into the annual rituals of Santiniketan, the town which has grown up around his school and university. He encouraged students and staff to participate in growing their own food. Tagore established an Institute for Rural Reconstruction called Sriniketan as a department of his university, Visva Bharati. Advice was to be provided to local farmers on modern methods, including the use of tractors and other machinery, which they would be encouraged to use on a cooperative basis. When Elmhirst left Santiniketan to establish his own ‘experiment in rural reconstruction’ at Dartington Hall, he introduced new methods of farming including artificial insemination of livestock and intensive chicken units. He used some of his land for conifer plantations. He had hedges removed to create the bigger fields needed for farm machinery, and presumably to achieve economies of scale. As an environmentalist with a special interest in land degradation, and having concerns about animal welfare, I am critical of some of Elmhirst’s methods. Even though Elmhirst was aware of ‘the robbery of the soil’, and presumably took care to ‘feed’ the soil with animal manures and perhaps artificial fertilisers, exposing the soil by ploughing leads ultimately to loss of fertility and susceptibility to erosion.

Are there better ways to use the land? Indeed there are. But there is still the problem of urban society being alienated from the land, and being unable to take responsibility for its sustainable use. My hope is that Tagore’s ideas about taking responsibility for giving back what we take from society will help to change attitudes. I haven’t yet worked out how to plants the seeds from which such a change might grow. My first step now is to return to the issue of land degradation, about which I used to be very well informed. This time, I want to look at this locally rather than globally, and focus on processes more than facts and figure and depressing statistics. I’m thinking of doing some research on silt.


[1] Elmhirst ‘The Robbery of the Soil’, in Poet and Plowman (Calcutta: Visva-Bharati, 1975), pp. 42-50 (p. 48).

[2] Tagore, speech following lecture by Elmhirst, in Poet and Plowman, pp. 168-72 (p. 169).

[3] Vernon Gill Carter and Tom Dale, Topsoil and Civilization, (University of Oklahoma Press, 1974 [1955])

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2 Responses to Tagore and ‘The Robbery of the Soil’

  1. Santanu Mitra says:

    Hello. I am an ex-student of Visva Bharati, and my Grandfather (Kalimohan Ghosh) was brought by Tagore to work on rural reconstruction projects with Elmhirst at Sriniketan more than a century ago.

    I live in Vancouver, Canada, and am involved with some grassroots movements in India that work towards redressing this degeneration of the rural landscape.

    I would like to call you sometime, if you permit. My email is tony.mitra@gmaiil.com
    Thank you
    Santanu Mitra

  2. Pingback: Dartington Agroforestry Project: PFAF visit 3 August 2017 – Plants For A Future

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