India has the largest number of hungry people in the world, despite the strong economic growth witnessed in recent years.  From New Delhi, Anjana Pasricha says a new report shows that India's economic boom has brought new prosperity to its middle class and pulled many out of poverty, but that millions of people n the vast country still struggle on low incomes. 

A report by the International Food Policy Research Institute says hunger, across India's 17 major states, ranges from "serious to extremely alarming."

The report - released as part of the 2008 Global Hunger Index - presents a dismal picture for India.  It says, despite years of robust economic growth, India scores worse than 25 sub-Saharan countries on the index.  It says more than 200 million Indians suffer from hunger.

The report identifies high levels of child malnutrition as one of the main factors resulting from hunger in India.

The report says that poorer states have substantially higher levels of malnutrition, compared to their more prosperous counterparts.  It found the most severe levels of hunger in the country's largest and least developed states, such as Madhya Pradesh and Bihar.

However, Purnima Menon - lead author of the report - says poverty is not the only factor responsible for hunger.  She says some poor states with better health programs or higher levels of literacy have managed to lower levels of malnutrition and child mortality.

"Poverty is one of the underlying reasons, but there are a number of states that actually are performing either much better or much worse than one world expect," said Menon.  "And, that could relate to specific investments that those states have made in social protection programs, in health and nutrition programs, in really scaling up those things that would make a difference for childhood underweight, childhood mortality and things like that which are captured in our index."

Thus one of India's poorest states, Orissa, and one of the country's most literate states, Kerala, fare better on the hunger index than some of the country's wealthier regions.

But, overall, the situation is bleak.  Even the country's best-performing state, Punjab, ranks below countries like Vietnam.

The International Food Policy Research Institute suggests that increasing investments in agriculture and poverty-reduction programs could help India combat hunger.

Experts say the high level of hunger in the country highlights the widening gap between the rich and the poor.  Five years of high economic growth has brought new affluence to millions of people who shop for luxury goods in glitzy new shopping malls.  But, for poor people living in teeming urban slums or the countryside, food has become more unaffordable, because of the increase in global food prices.

At least half the country's billion-plus people live on less than one dollar a day.  The government says it is striving to put in place programs that will ensure more inclusive growth.