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W&L’s Blunch and International Team Launch Anti-Discrimination Program in India

A high-profile workshop in India in December officially launched a program whereby an international team including Niels-Hugo Blunch, associate professor of economics at Washington and Lee University, will examine the economic and behavioral impacts of anti-discrimination policies in India’s caste system.

The workshop was held at the Asian Development Research Institute in Patna, in the state of Bihar, and discussed ways to refine interventions targeting low-caste children in Bihar’s public schools.

Among the invited guests from Bihar were the principal secretary of the education department, the principal secretary of social welfare and the joint secretary of education.  “We wanted to make sure that the stakeholders, policy makers and non-government organizations could have a say, and that we didn’t miss anything important,” said Blunch. “This program will study the effects of different anti-discrimination policies, and we can only do the study one time, so we want it to be as good as possible. It’s also important to get all the local stakeholders on board so that it’s not just researchers coming in to schools from the outside.”

The three-year project, which is funded by a grant of $626,000 from the Danish Council of Independent Research, will start with a test to establish a baseline in terms of children’s learning outcomes in school. Then different interventions will be tested to examine the effect on outcomes, and the children will be re-tested.

One of the interventions is to offer a financial incentive to teachers if they can raise the learning outcomes of low-caste children, who tend to be at the bottom of the class. Another intervention will be an informational campaign to explain to teachers the effect of their discrimination on low-caste children.

“The low-caste children get hammered every day,” said Blunch. “It’s in their names and in their placement in the classroom, where higher-caste children sit at the front and low-caste children sit at the back. It’s more prevalent in rural areas, and in some schools low-caste children are not even allowed to drink from the same water fountain as higher-caste children.”

According to Blunch, the researchers targeted the state of Bihar because it is one of the largest and also one of the poorest states in India. “We chose Bihar because we figured that if it doesn’t work there, it won’t work anywhere,” said Blunch.

During the 10-day trip, Blunch also presented his paper “Health Knowledge, Caste and Social Networks in India” at the Ninth Annual Conference on Economic Growth and Development. He co-authored it with Nabanita Datta Gupta, professor of economics at Aarhus University in Denmark, who was the Griffith Family Visiting International Scholar at W&L in 2012.

Blunch also presented his paper “Income Convergence and the Flow out of Poverty in India, 1994–2005” at the 55th Annual Conference of the Indian Society of Labour Economics. This paper was co-authored with Professor Gupta and Paola Barrientos Quiroga, a graduate student at Aarhus University (co-supervised by Blunch). Both conferences were held in the capital, New Delhi.

Blunch received his B.A. and M.A. from Aarhus University, his M.Sc. from University of Southampton, and his Ph.D. from The George Washington University. He came to Washington and Lee from the World Bank Headquarters, where he had been a consultant, and teaches courses in econometrics, statistics, health economics and education in developing countries.