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Kantara: A Legend, a Kannada movie made with a big heart, conviction and a modest budget of 16 crore is a global box office hit. With its revenues said to have topped more than 20 times that figure, it’s the toast of Indian cinema this season. The spiritually inclined describe the movie as a magical mirror that throws a kaleidoscope of reflections back at them, each of them deeply personal, with much to ponder. Some say it portrays the greed of rich exploiters and leans towards “Maoism", used here as a blanket term for downtrodden masses standing up for their rights.

But Kantara also mirrors a traditional social, cultural and economic reality of India. In the make-believe world of the film, there is a deeply spiritual and closely bonded community with very few needs and apparent contentment. The land they live on is both provider and protector. Fiction it may be, but our question is: Can a Kantara-like ecosystem sustain itself without diluting or corrupting its core—be it the environment or the lifestyle and culture of those bound by it?

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Agriculture is still the largest source of livelihood in India and employs most labour. In 2021-22, India’s farm sector growth was at 3.9%, up from 3.6% the previous year. But the sector faces steep challenges. Despite its remarkable resilience during the pandemic, input costs have risen and it sorely lacks investment, infrastructure and processing capacity. So, can the land and its people offer an opportunity for rural micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) to thrive?

It’s a potential that visitors to rural India cannot miss. Growing connectivity in terms of transport and telecom can enable small businesses to be set up in rural areas. In any case, MSMEs are critical for a developing economy like ours, given the sheer numbers they employ. According to the SME Chamber of India, Indian MSMEs account for 45% of total industrial production and 40% of exports, resulting in a contribution to national output to the tune of about 38%.

India’s MSME sector is still recovering from demonetization followed by a sudden GST burden and then covid lockdowns, but we could still hope for a Kantara-inspired rural renaissance. Here’s how:

Think global: If a small movie can go global, dreaming up quality solutions for people across the world is something our MSMEs could aim for. The internet is a great enabler. Small infotech service companies have made headway, and as the digital divide closes, those in rural settings can too.

Create self-sustaining local businesses. In the movie, the protagonists don’t have much to aspire for, as the local landlord keeps them satiated and subjugated in both ‘spirit’ and spiritual beliefs, with no interest in investing in the community’s betterment. But what if locals are motivated to ideate and set up business models? Think of the Amul model, organic farming or processed food units for greater value addition. Technology can enable small farm-to-fork startups that eliminate middlemen and greedy politicians from the value chain. Multiple local businesses can thrive in a single value chain. These small businesses could make a difference to local ecosystems by fostering open dialogues that are honest, transparent and community-welfare oriented, while symbolically and visibly reducing people’s dependence on land owners and other local overlords.

Ignite rural passion as part of the Startup India mission: Empowering locals can create prosperity by stirring up passion, especially when they are working for something larger than the mundane. Local talent can create new offerings that solve real problems faced by far larger numbers, and we can help them scale up. Many large businesses depend on smaller ones for various outsourced functions. Startups in rural areas could be suppliers too. Done across India, this would amount to a bottom-of-the-pyramid strategy for broad-based economic growth. Imagine if all the energy and passion depicted in Kantara were harnessed for a local self-help businesses.

Enable local communities to be largely independent: Pooled resources could form self-support mechanisms. Collective living and universal housing, for instance, could go a long way. The film depicts a community that is relatively self-sufficient and unaffected by what’s going outside their area. This is fiction. Still, local communities that are tightly knit—geographically, economically and culturally—can serve as relatively stable ecosystems that protect the local environment, keep communal tensions down and provide various other benefits of shared living.

Encourage stakeholder capitalism: Tensions between big businesses and local communities, as seen in cases where mining potential has been in conflict with age-old Tribal ways of life, can only be resolved through a model of stakeholder capitalism that moves from maximizing ‘shareholder value’ to ‘shared value’. Businesses that venture into rural India must take win-win approaches that are fair to all. Exploitation of locals in any form could evoke cynicism and end our hopes of a rural renaissance.

Everyone’s well-being should be part of India’s inclusive growth agenda, without which we will end up with only fairy tales to talk about.

M. Muneer & Riitu Chugh are, respectively, co-founder of the non-profit Medici Institute and an SME growth advocate, and a brand planner and marketing strategist. Twitter @MuneerMuh

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