NEW DELHI (AFP) - Tens of thousands of poor Indians began a 350-kilometre (220-mile) march to New Delhi on Wednesday to protest over the plight of marginalised communities excluded from the country’s development.

The gathering left the central city of Gwalior and is set to reach India’s capital at the end of the month, the organising activist group Ekta Parishad (Unity Forum) said.

“Some 35,000 people have started off from Gwalior and by the time they reach New Delhi we expect the number to swell to 100,000,” Parishad spokesman Aneesh Thillenkery told AFP.

Organisers said the group came from across India and included casual labourers, small farmers, fishermen, itinerant workers and the unemployed.

Participants in the rally carried green and white flags and blocked a major road in Gwalior.

“Our plan is to cover 27 kilometres on the first day of the march,” Thillenkery said. “In all, we will walk through five states and we will follow national highways where we will eat, rest and sleep.”

The planned route will take the rally through the cities of Agra, Mathura and Faridabad before reaching Delhi.

The trek is the second since 2007 when 25,000 poor and debt-ridden farmers travelled the same route on foot to press for land rights.

The clash between India’s industrial expansion and its agricultural communities has become a test of how the government deals with the development that is transforming Asia’s third largest economy.

“We demand that agriculture land must be used exclusively for farming,” Thillenkery said.

“When the poor want land, the central government says it is up to state authorities to decide, but it acquires land for use by corporates.”

Some 73 percent of India’s billion-plus population live off the land, but major industrial projects - seen as vital by the government to create jobs - are frequently delayed or even abandoned due to land acquisition problems.

India’s economy has boomed in the last 20 years since liberalisation reforms in 1991, leading to the perception of a “shining” country emerging from decades of poverty.

Foreign companies and India’s powerful conglomerates have invested heavily, selling vast quantities of cars, luxury goods and Western lifestyle products to the growing middle classes.

But a survey by a non-government organisation in January found 42 percent of children under five were underweight, which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described as a “national shame”.