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W&L Economist Joins International Team Studying Anti-Discrimination Policies in India

Washington and Lee University economist Niels-Hugo Blunch belongs to an international team that has received a major grant to examine the economic and behavioral impacts of anti-discrimination policies in the context of India’s caste system.

The grant from the Danish Council of Independent Research is for 3,478,625 DKK, or about $626,000. Aarhus University, in Denmark, is the hosting institution. One of the principal investigators is Nabanita Data Gupta, professor of economics at Aarhus, who was the Griffith Family Visiting International Scholar at Washington and Lee last winter.

In addition to W&L and Aarhus, the University of Connecticut and Jawaharlal Nehru University, India, will send scholars to participate.

“This is a very significant grant and an important project,” said Blunch. “I’m excited to be a member of this team. These are thorny issues that we’re going to be tackling.”

According to Blunch, the project aims to understand how anti-discrimination policies in India effect socioeconomic outcomes across the life cycle. The research will be examining both education and labor markets by using a combination of methods, including traditional econometrics and randomized controlled trials.

As currently planned, the researchers will use both an information campaign and financial incentives to see whether or not they can have an impact on test scores among students. They will target teachers and parents with the information campaigns about stereotypes and discrimination and will use financial incentives with teachers to determine whether or not a reward based on student improvement can make a difference.

Among the issues that the study will explore is how to minimize stigma and stereotyping with such anti-discrimination policies, whether or not the policy creates any disincentives for the development of skills, if there are optimum ages for the policies to be effective, and what impact the policies have on the majority.

“India has attempted to overcome a caste system with anti-discrimination policies that reserve positions, or create quotas, for members of the lower castes for new jobs, political seats and slots in higher educational institutions,” Blunch said. “What we want to understand is whether or not these policies have resulted in the desired outcome. Have the lower-caste individuals for whom these programs were established fared better than they would have in the absence of these programs?”

Blunch noted that they will center much of their work in rural areas of India, where the caste system remains ingrained. “Caste does not dichotomize people as much in urban areas, which are more westernized and where these ancient institutions are less significant,” he said.

Even though the work is in India, Bunch said that the outcomes will provide insights to anti-discrimination policies in other countries. The work will begin next spring with baseline research.

Blunch, who received his B.A. and M.A. from Aarhus, has been a member of the Washington and Lee faculty since 2006. He came to W&L from the World Bank Headquarters, where he had been a consultant. He teaches courses in statistics, econometrics and health economics in developing countries.