Surging income levels in India are driving a brisk demand for sugary treats, fizzy drinks, and a diet rich in meat and fast food—leading to a booming business in gastric bands and stomach bypasses, The (London) Times reported Wednesday.

A decade of red-hot economic growth has driven obesity levels in India to epidemic proportions, with five percent of the population, or 60 million people out of 1.2 billion, now morbidly obese.

Even as 43 percent of Indian children under five remain chronically malnourished, in some big cities like Mumbai, obesity levels among adults are as high as 40 percent. And for those that can afford it, surgery is viewed as a quick-fix solution.

"It's a good business to be in," said Dr. Ramen Goel, who estimates about 2,000 such operations will take place in India this year, up from just 10 in all of 2001.

This month Nitin Gadkari, the president of India's main opposition party, became the latest political leader to opt for bariatric surgery.

DY Patil, a ruling Congress party lawmaker, and several top Bollywood film-makers and businessmen have also had gastric bypasses, in which the size of the stomach is restricted to cut the body's absorption of calories, or gastric band surgery, in which an inflatable device is placed around the top of the stomach.

"We've operated on half the cabinet," said Dr. Muffazal Lakdawala of the Centre for Obesity and Diabetes Surgery in Mumbai, noting that ministers Nawab Malik and Nitin Raut were both recent patients of his clinic.

But while gastric surgery is clearly helping many Indians who are grappling with a serious weight problem, it has also cast a fresh and unflattering light on the dizzying disparities of wealth in the country, where a recent economic boom appears to have passed hundreds of millions of its citizens by.

Despite GDP growth of close to eight percent per year, a space program and aspirations to be an emerging superpower, there are still more people living in absolute poverty in just eight Indian states -- 410 million -- than in all 26 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

"The statistics are just staggering," says Priya Subramanian, of Save the Children in New Delhi. "Over 1.2 million children under the age of one in India die every year with malnutrition the biggest single cause. Seven million children under five are severely underweight ... India is an economic giant but a nutritional weakling."