India is one of the epicentres of the global diabetes mellitus pandemic. Rapid socioeconomic development and demographic changes, along with increased susceptibility for Indian individuals, have led to the explosive increase in the prevalence of diabetes mellitus in India over the past four decades. Type 2 diabetes mellitus in Asian Indian people is characterized by a young age of onset and occurrence at low levels of BMI. Available data also suggest that the susceptibility of Asian Indian people to the complications of diabetes mellitus differs from that of white populations. Management of this disease in India faces multiple challenges, such as low levels of awareness, paucity of trained medical and paramedical staff and unaffordability of medications and services. Novel interventions using readily available resources and technology promise to revolutionise the care of patients with diabetes mellitus in India. As many of these challenges are common to most developing countries of the world, the lessons learnt from India's experience with diabetes mellitus are likely to be of immense global relevance. In this Review, we discuss the epidemiology of diabetes mellitus and its complications in India and outline the advances made in the country to ensure adequate care. We make specific references to novel, cost-effective interventions, which might be of relevance to other low-income and middle-income countries of the world.