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India appears likely to fall short of the 2015 global deadline set by the United Nations (UN) to halve poverty and hunger, though it will likely hit other goals on time or early, according to a report released by the UN and the Asian Development Bank.

The report, detailing progress in the Asia-Pacific region, was unveiled more than a week before the 17 October midpoint of the target period for the Millennium Development Goals, which establish benchmarks for everything from poverty reduction to climate change. Launched in 2000, the campaign gave developing nations 15 years to halve benchmarks such as poverty and hunger from the 1990 levels.

In many areas, India significantly lags behind fast developing China and even developing Vietnam, which have hit more than half the benchmarks early. But, to be sure, no country in the world is on track to meet every target.

See: Where they stand (PDF)

In addition to slow progress on important indicators of maternal and child health, and infant mortality, the report says India appears to be regressing on some climate change issues.

However, India appears on track, or has already achieved, benchmarks for enrolling more children in primary school, fighting HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, improving access to clean water, and other targets. India also trails neighbouring nations, such as Bangladesh and Nepal, which are all on track to cut early childhood mortality rates by two-thirds by 2015.

On the whole, India is “on its way to miss the Millennium Development Goals bus", said Abusaleh Shariff, chief economist and head of the human development programme at the National Council of Applied Economic Research.

Millions of the most vulnerable—scheduled castes and tribes, Muslims, and women—haven’t reaped the benefits of the nation’s high economic growth and find themselves caught in a “poverty trap" due to poor access to health care and education, Shariff said.

More than one-third of India’s 1.1 billion people live on less than a $1 (Rs39.40) a day and the nation accounts for one-third of the world’s poor, according to the World Bank.

This includes people such as Amina, a 32-year-old mother of three young children who begs outside Mumbai’s Haji Ali Mosque. On good days, the family collectively earns about Rs100 and still goes hungry. They lived well in a chawl in Bhiwandi, outside Mumbai, until Amina’s husband died almost five years ago—when she was pregnant. Bills mounting, she was forced on to the street. Now, she begs.

Like many of India’s poor, they suffer from health problems. She has anaemia. “My son would have such high fever," she says. “I could either buy food or buy the medicine."

“If we see poverty alleviation as a grass roots process... then that is just not happening here," says Narendra Sharma, a Bhopal-based ActionAID programme officer who works with tribal families living on Re0.90 per day, far below any official poverty line.

“The most vulnerable are still starving and dying. They sell themselves into bonded labour for very low prices because they have no other choice," adds Sharma. “They are open to everything from sexual harassment or worse; the children can’t go to school because they need to earn."

Within India, large regional disparities are evident. In Madhya Pradesh, three out of five children are underweight, a key measure of hunger. Close to half of India’s underweight children live in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, according to studies cited by the UN.

“Progress isn’t really reaching out to large sections of society beyond the middle class. There are large sections of rural India where they just haven’t seen prosperity," says Thomas Chandy, chief executive officer of non-profit advocacy and relief organization Save the Children, Bal Raksha, Bharat. “If you look at the number of children starving in this country, it’s appalling."

Half of the country’s children under five are underweight, which has troubling implications for the nation’s future economic growth given India’s youth boom, according to Chandy.

“If we talk about the future, by 2020, India will have a surplus of young people in terms of population as the rest of the world trends older," he said. “But how are we going to export those skills and talent to the world if millions of them are stunted in some way?"

Development analysts lauded government efforts in primary education and fighting the HIV/AIDS epidemic—areas where the report found India on track or ahead.

If the countries in the Asia-Pacific region that are off track were able to speed up and meet the millennium development targets by 2015, then about 196 million more people would be lifted out of extreme poverty, 23 million more children would no longer suffer from hunger and nearly one million more children would survive beyond their fifth birthday, according to thereport.

Priyanka P. Narain in Mumbai contributed to this story.

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