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Centre for Health Economics and Policy Analysis


Labelle Lecture examines the link between the caste system, infant mortality and unfulfilled economic potential in India

09 Aug 2017

Dean Spears, co-founder and executive director of the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics (r.i.c.e.) will present the annual Labelle Lecture on Weds. Sept. 13 from 3 p.m. to 4:40 p.m. in the Michael DeGroote Centre for Learning, MDCL 3020.

The lecture, Where India goes: Abandoned toilets, stunted development, and the costs of caste, posits that continuing open defecation in India is not the result of poverty but rather is an enduring consequence of the caste system, untouchability, and ritual purity.

Spears notes that people globally live longer, better lives than in centuries past, partly because the rapid adoption of latrines and toilets has reduced children’s exposure to fecal germs.

India is an exception, he says. Latrine and toilet adoption in India has been very slow compared to other parts of the world, and open defecation remains common.  Spears says this is one reason why infants in India are more likely to die than in neighbouring poorer countries such as Bangladesh and Nepal, and are more likely to be stunted than children in sub-Saharan Africa.

And, because early-life conditions have life-long consequences, when children cannot develop to their potential, economic development is stunted as well, he says.

In addition to his work with r.ic.e., a non-profit organization focused on research and policy advocacy for early-life health in rural India, Spears is an assistant professor of economics at the University of Texas at Austin and a visiting researcher at the Indian Statistical Institute in Delhi. He has an MPA in development studies and a PhD in economics from Princeton University.

With Diane Coffey, he is the co-author of Where India Goes: Abandoned Toilets, Stunted Development, and the Costs of Caste, which won the 2017 Joseph Elder book prize in Indian social sciences. The book (available from Amazon: ), demonstrates that India's exceptional open defecation is not the result of poverty, but instead is an enduring consequence of the caste system, untouchability, and ritual purity. 

The authors call for the annihilation of caste and the questioning of assumptions about the chain linking development policy to changes in rural India's villages.

The lecture will take place at 3 p.m. on Sept. 13 in McMaster’s MDCL 3020, with a reception to follow in the Farncombe Atrium. All are welcome. You can also attend remotely by copying and pasting this link in your browser:

The annual Labelle Lecture was created to honour Roberta Labelle, who was one of the founding members of CHEPA. Her death in 1991 was unexpected and occurred when broad recognition for her research in health economics was just starting to emerge.

In her memory, CHEPA and what is now the Department of Health Research Methods, Evidence, and Impact (HEI) collaborated on establishing the Annual Labelle Lectureship Series. In autumn of each year a health services researcher with emerging recognition and an inter-disciplinary approach to research, gives a general interest lecture on a topic in the broadly defined areas of health economics and/or health policy.
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