The main message of the NCAER-Future Capital Research report on the top 20 Indian cities to watch for in terms of their income and expenditure patterns is a straightforward one -- these top 20 cities account for 10 per cent of India's population, 20 per cent of the country's expenditure, 30 per cent of income and around 60 per cent of surplus income.
All those who have argued that the circle of prosperity is widening, and that it now encompasses the smaller towns, semi-urban areas and even villages, have to reckon with the hard reality that the financial surpluses continue to be in the big cities.
As places where the leading companies operate, where the best jobs are available and where good support services exist (including educational opportunities and quality medical care), the big cities will continue to score over all other parts of the country.
Indeed, the real failing is that India has not been able to take care of its cities, any more than it has been able to provide urban facilities in the rural areas. Urban management in a low-income environment, dealing with population sizes that are larger than most of the rich countries have to contend with, presents a unique set of challenges, to which there has not so far been an effective response.
That may be about to change, as the cities become politically more important. The recent delimitation exercise has resulted in the number of urban seats in Parliament and various legislatures going up quite sharply, and by one reckoning every third seat is now predominantly urban or has a large urban component of voters.
Their needs and priorities cannot, therefore, be ignored any longer, or buried under the old shibboleth that India lives in its villages. In Karnataka, it is already difficult for political parties to do well without taking care of the complaints of
Bangalore's citizens and the companies that it houses, like Infosys and Wipro. The fact that the central government has put in place a big-budget programme aimed at urban renewal is another sign of cities beginning to matter in the political calculus.
The country is now seeing large-scale investment in public transport, and changes in land laws so as to encourage rational land use. What is yet to emerge is responsive city governments, with politicians like Rudy Giuliani or Ken Livingstone making or breaking their reputations on the strength of their management of a city.
This is a task that will have to addressed sooner or later. As NCAER points out, by 2050 around 45 per cent of India's population will be urban. That's an increase in population in these spaces that is more than the entire population of the US today.
Indeed, a vocal urban population might also hold politicians to account more effectively than caste-based politics in the countryside permits, helped along by intensive media coverage of the lack of civic facilities, the mishandling of criminal cases and land scams.