The Indian prime minister has called for a crackdown on corruption, saying it hurts the poor and deters investors.  Transparency International has downgraded India on its corruption-perception index. 

The "urgent" call from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to combat corruption came at a national conference of India's main investigating agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation, and anti-corruption officials in New Delhi, Wednesday.

He says corruption is an impediment to India's growing economy, because it discourages investors who expect transparent dealings with public authorities.

He is calling on officials to aggressively target "high-level corruption" in a country where it is commonly believed that corruption is pervasive at all levels of government. 

Prime Minister Singh focused on the impact of corruption on poor people, saying they are getting "disproportionately hurt" as they are denied the benefits of social welfare schemes.  

"We have some of the most ambitious and wide-ranging programs in place today to help the poor and marginalized sections of our society," he said.  "But there is a constant refrain in public discourse that much of what the government provides never reaches the intended beneficiaries."

He was referring to perceptions that corrupt officials siphon off subsidized food grains intended for the poor, or loans, fertilizers and seeds for farmers.

Nearly half of India's 1.2 billion people live on less than $2 a day.

Transparency International, the global watchdog tracking corruption, says being denied the benefit of social welfare programs is not the only problem for these poor people.  It estimates that poor households in India spend as much as $175 million a year on bribes. 

Anupama Jha, a representative of Transparency International in India, says these bribes are paid to avail basic public services such as hospitals, education and water.

"This kind of corruption denies people their entitlement to need based services, many of which may be free by law," said Anupama Jha. "This results in increased disparity in income and deepens poverty."

As in many developing countries, corruption is pervasive in India, affecting almost every section of governance.  India was ranked 85th among 180 countries in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index in 2008, slipping from its previous ranking of 72nd.