Millions of children across India are malnourished and anaemic despite the country's economic boom, and the rising Asian power must feed its young population better, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) said on Friday.
Early findings of a survey by the Indian health ministry, backed by UNICEF, found that the number of undernourished children below the age of three had actually increased in some states despite a rise in per capita income and robust economic growth.
Even in states where malnutrition rates have fallen, the number of infants who are anaemic has risen, indicating the poor quality of food available and raising concern about the future of millions of children.
"The country which provides software for the world should be able to tackle its own malnutrition problem," said Werner Schultink, the nutrition and child development chief for UNICEF in India.
"It's a disappointing situation ... whether it is worrying, I would say yes, very much so," he said in an interview.
Schultink said that undernourishment would hurt the mental growth of children as well as their future school performance and have a long-term impact on the productiveness of adults, adversely affecting India's rapid economic progress.
"It is, therefore, of great importance for the overall development capacity of a nation."
India, however, had "come a long way" from the 1970s when malnutrition among children was around 70 per cent. Indian officials were working to tackle the current problem, Schultink said, adding: "This needs to be taken further."
Poor nutrition amid high growth
India's GDP has been growing at over eight per cent in the past three years and at six per cent or more since the early 1990s when it started its economic reform programme.
The number of people living below the official poverty line has fallen to 26 per cent from 37.5 per cent in 1990.
But the National Family Health Survey findings have shown that in Gujarat, one of India's richest and most industrialised states, the percentage of underweight children had risen to 47 per cent from 45 per cent seven years ago.
It revealed that in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state with 170 million people, the percentage of anaemic children under three had risen to 85 per cent from 74 per cent.
UNICEF said the average malnutrition rate of over 40 per cent in states such as Uttar Pradesh and Orissa was higher than Sub-Saharan Africa where it is around 30 per cent.
This is despite India running a huge midday meal scheme for children, with 120 million signed up to receive one hot, nutritious meal free on every school day.
But media reports say corruption has marred implementation in some states and one report last month said that in Uttar Pradesh the ready-to-eat food was diverted to feed cattle.
The Planning Commission says it is worried.
"There could be a drop in providing the right kind of balanced nutrition," said NK Sethi, a senior health adviser to the commission. "This has to be addressed."