Source: Indicus Analytics


India is about to breach the $2 trillion GDP mark, as it works its way through the lower end of the middle-income-nation spectrum. We have yet to recognise that the economic output of a large state like Maharashtra is now as large as the entire Indian economy in the early 1990s, when first-generation economic reforms were launched. This amnesia is most apparent in our cities, which in spite of being the key driver of this growth remain unrecognised, underinvested in and, effectively, cesspools of mal-development.


The first India Today ranking of the country's best cities conducted by Indicus Analytics addresses precisely this point, and hopes to reverse it. Even after two decades of over 5 per cent growth we are still trapped under the weight of an unnecessary dichotomy. At one pole is the lived experience of many as 'Bharat' as an endemically poor underdeveloped economy struggling to provide sanitation, power, connectivity and livelihoods to over 830 million people in 640,000 villages. At the other is the aspiration for a better life and improved social mobility of the young and better educated in 'India'-the 400-odd million people who live in 8,000 cities and small towns that now dot the countryside.


This is an incomplete characterisation. The urban and the rural are intimately connected in India-apart from an artificial divide created by political interests around a historical difference in electorate and the differential in public expenditure in rural and urban development programmes. In agriculturally rich areas like Punjab, western Uttar Pradesh, Krishna and Godavari deltas, the growth of towns and cities has emerged from rural and agricultural prosperity. In Kerala and along the Konkan coast up to Goa and some parts of the north-east, 'rurban' development blends villages and towns seamlessly into one landscape. The peri-urban fringe and ribbon development around the metros, many of our 53 million-cities and in rapidly urbanising states like Gujarat and Tamil Nadu are a tableau of changing occupations and lifestyles, cultures and aspirations across a common rural-urban continuum. Some prescient leaders are starting to integrate these changes into their political calculus.


India is different from most other large countries in the world, including contemporary China. We have hundreds of millions of people living in well over half a million villages, distributed across the subcontinent. Unlike in many other parts of the world, this is not about to change dramatically for the next few decades. The troublesome question is why we tend to privilege rural demographics above the second largest urban population in the world that produces increasing amounts of our income.


To understand this conundrum, one has to turn to a pre-Independence imagination of free India that is still part of our governing culture. This is best expressed by Mahatma Gandhi in Young India over 1929-31 "India lives in its seven lakh villages not in its towns... We are inheritors of a rural civilisation... To uproot it and substitute it for an urban civilisation seems to me to be an impossibility". Post-Independence Indian cities were seen as sites of colonial and capitalist exploitation to be largely left to their own (de)vices. This was contrary to the trajectory of 20th century modernisation in other parts of the world from the Soviet bloc to Latin America and later the economic miracle regions of east and southeast Asia.