Faculty Research Database

Columbia Universty faculty are engaged in a wide variety of research projects in South Asia.  Below is a list of some of these projects. This database is meant to serve as a resource for faculty and students interested in South Asia to share their research and connect across disciplines. 


Arts, Literature, and Humanities

Arts, Culture, and Quality of Life in Global Cities Forum

Vishakha Desai, Special Advisor for Global Affairs to the President; Professor of Professional Practice in the Faculty of International and Public Affairs; Special advisor for Asia to the Executive Vice President for Global Centers and Global Development

There is a growing consensus among civic leaders that the presence of arts and cultural institutions and networks is vital to the health of any global city, old or new. But it is less apparent how to build and sustain robust cultural infrastructure.  A key problem is how to evaluate the role and effectiveness of arts and culture. How do we develop quantitative and qualitative measurements to assess the impact of arts and culture on the quality of life of cities?  How do we balance the issues of social justice and creativity in cities where the super-rich and the ultra-poor of the world reside, and often collide?  What is the role of public and private sectors in creating a healthy cultural ecology in a global city? How do we measure value beyond the economic impact of the arts—numbers of tickets sold, number of tourists visiting the city, the gentrification of a neighborhood?  What are the key ingredients for a thriving cultural sector in a city, taking into account artists, large established institutions as well as smaller arts organizations?  What are the barriers to the successful implementation of cultural policy in global cities?

Columbia University’s Committee on Global Thought, in partnership with Ford Foundation and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, organized a one-day program to bring together scholars, policy makers, private sector and non-profit leaders, and practitioners—artists, architects, planners, community activists—to discuss some of these urgent issues around developing a better understanding of the role arts and culture can play in the social health of global cities. The purpose of the program was two-fold:  1) To explore the broader questions around the role of arts and culture in cities from a global perspective using New York as a case study and 2) to highlight the experience of New York City over the last twelve years under the Bloomberg administration to focus on past challenges and successes in the context of developing a blueprint for future city development. It is envisioned that this multi-disciplinary, trans-national gathering will serve as the beginning of a conversation that can result in a longer-term project with a substantial research and policy agenda of relevance for all global cities, especially those that are changing rapidly or those that are developing anew.


Old Histories and New Geographies: between China and India

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, University Professor, Columbia University

We often hear that we live in the Asian Century. China and India are seen as the major players in this transformation. What are the general perennial mind-structures that make this “Asia” come alive as a site of long-networked regions? We recognize that, at a time of increasing commercial and economic interaction between India and China, major metropolitan centers of finance and official decision-making (Mumbai and Delhi in India, Beijing and Shanghai in China) should be the normal pivots of bilateral relations and appreciate that Columbia has Global Centers in Mumbai and Beijing. We seek to enrich and enhance the Centers’ work, thicken it with more localized research. More firmly grounded links and connections with global implications are to be found in a web of connections between Kolkata, Kunming and number of regional centers in the Ganga Mekong area. This focuses on the connections between East and South Asia in a different way. In its current form this web has not been dominated and directed by any of the governments of the area. Attempts to understand the way relationships are formed has been restricted to narrations of state-to-state relations, insurgent activity or evaluations of the potential of trade and investment. The shape of prejudices, communities, perceptions and practices seldom receive attention, let alone the survival and transmutation of these features of the region through changing state forms. We confront this rich material of the economics and politics of “culture,” integrating such crucial items as gender and built space. Our project involves, among many stopping points in China, Nepal, India, Myanmar, and Bangladesh, specifically also the Chandernagor area, where the banks of the river Hooghly are historically and geographically inscribed by a millennial China trade, and five episodes of European colonial interventions, in some ways a historical focus of the emergent geographies outlined above.

New Regionalism: Rethinking South Asian Studies

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, University Professor, Columbia University

In 2011, Spivak went to the Institute of Advanced Communication Education and Research in Kathmandu to help rethink South Asian Studies away from indocentrism. The result has been three workshops involving Spivak, Charles Armstrong and Robbie Barnett from the Weatherhead Institute, and Ben Baer from Princeton,  in 2012, 2013, and 2014, and local researchers and students to conceptualize a New Regionalism.

The efforts attempt to combine social science and humanities methodologies. Since this is a new way of “knowing our region,” faculty and student capacity building is one of our primary goals.

Contemporary Dance in South Asia

Uttara Coorlawala, Adjunct Professor of Dance, Barnard College/Columbia University

These projects focus on Contemporary Dance in South Asia, specifically working with critical approaches within India. In summer 2014, Professor Coorlawala worked with the The GATI Dance Project (New Delhi) and the Shiamak Davar Institute of Performing Arts (Mumbai). 

Classical Hindi Literature and Mughal-period Cultural History

Allison Busch, Associate Professor of Hindi and Indian Literature and Director of Graduate Studies, MESAAS, Columbia University

Abstracts of  Professor Busch's important projects can be found here.



India Shadow Banking System

Suresh Sundaresan, Chase Manhattan Bank Foundation Professor of Financial Institutions, Columbia Business School 

Bindu Ananth, Chair, IMFR Trust

This project aims to research the shadow banking system with the goal of preparing a white paper to present to policy makers and thought leaders in financial markets. Professor Sundaresan is also exploring with the Stock Exchanges on organizing a conference on Sovereign Bond Markets in India. This project is at a more preliminary stage. 

Cultural Beliefs as Obstacles to Innovation

Gita Johar, Meyer Feldberg Professor of Business, Columbia Business School

This project aims to develop an understanding of ways cultural backgrounds and beliefs pose obstacles to innovation and creativity. It proposes to conduct surveys of people’s values, explore how these correlate with innovation indicators and design interventions that can help managers overcome these culture-specific barriers.

This research is part of a larger research project that will investigate these issues in various cultural backgrounds and countries, including China, India and Brazil. 

Inside the Branch: Productivity, Pro-Sociality, and the Delivery of Microfinance Lending to the Poor

Bruce Kogut, Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Professor of Leadership and Ethics, Columbia Business School 

Casey Ichniowski, Former Carson Family Professor of Business, Columbia Business School

Through surveys, field work observations and interviews with experienced employees of 20 Indian MFIs, the project aims to study and join two questions that are largely under-researched: what are the sources and best practices for high productivity for microfinance lending institutions and what are the performance outcomes from the social services, e.g. educational and health, that these institutions provide in addition to financial services. These questions are critical to improving the efficiency of institutions financing the poor and to proposing a re-orientation in our thinking about social impact in this domain. The research is collaborative with the Centre for Microfinance (CMF) in India, housed within the Institute for Financial Management and Research (IFMR). CMF will be responsible for managing a team of 30 to 40 individuals to conduct and monitor the survey.

Savings Monitors

Emily Breza, Assistant Professor, Finance and Economics, Columbia Business School 

Arun Chandrasekhar, Assistant Professor of Economics, Stanford University

The project investigates how existing peer networks might help individuals in rural India to mitigate psychological barriers (such as time inconsistency) and better mobilize savings. The team is in the process of opening savings accounts for villagers from three districts in Karnataka to test the effectiveness of different peer and incentive structures. Villagers will decide on a savings goal and will either be in a control group or will be randomly assigned to a savings monitor. Each savings monitor will be informed of the saver's goal as well as his or her weekly progress towards attaining that goal. A subsample of savers will choose the identity of that savings monitor. Using extensive covariate and network data previously collected from these villages, we will be able to identify those characteristics that are possessed by the most effective savings referees. The research is funded by the Consortium on Financial Systems and Poverty. 

Got (Good) Milk? Information, Enforcement and Social Networks in Indian Dairy Production 

Emily Breza, Assistant Professor, Finance and Economics, Columbia Business School 

Arun Chandrasekhar, Assistant Professor of Economics, Stanford University

Manaswini Rao, Research Associate, Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (South Asia)

Ashish Shenoy, Graduate Student, MIT

The project explores how social networks affect output in joint production processes, using rural Indian dairy cooperatives as our empirical setting.  The team is in the process of running a field experiment to identify the effects of social status on milk quality with a focus on how the network monitors, punishes and diffuses information about best farming practices.

The pilot was funded by Innovations for Poverty Action. 

Windfall or Downfall: Time Inconsistent Behavior in the Absence of Microfinance 

Emily Breza, Assistant Professor, Finance and Economics, Columbia Business School 

Abhijit Banerjee, Ford Foundation International Professor of Economics, MIT

Esther Duflo, Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics, MIT

Prathap Kasina, Associate Programs Director, Innovations for Poverty Action

Cynthia Kinnan, Assistant Professor of Economics, Northwestern University

The project proposes to measure the impacts of the withdrawal of microfinance from urban neighborhoods in the wake of the 2010-2011 microfinance crisis in Andhra Pradesh, India. In particular, the team would like to understand if households with greater present bias were less well-equipped to manage the windfall gain from the crisis's implicit loan forgiveness policy. Since microfinance has many characteristics of a commitment savings device, the absence of such a device could be welfare decreasing for time inconsistent households. Results from the study could help to inform the current microfinance debate by highlighting behavioral benefits from the industry.

Environmental Science and Engineering

Arsenic Testing of Tubewell Water in Bangladesh and India

Alexander Van Geen, Lamont Research Professor, Earth Institute

Joseph H. Graziano, Professor of Environmental Health Sciences and Professor of Pharmacology, College of Physcians and Surgeons

This project focuses on groundwater quality and rural health, because of arsenic (natural) contamination in particular, in Bangladesh and India. The project's approach to testing wells and arsenic mitigation is to provide information and technology - whereas most of the other costs could be borne from household contributions - in order to facilitate scaling up to the level needed.

Life on a Tectonically Active Delta

Leonardo Seeber, Lamont Research Profesor, Earth Institute

Michael StecklerLamont Research Professor, Earth Institute

This project operates mostly in Bangladesh, but also in India, and is heavily dependent on the contribution of local scientists and students. It studies the interaction between sedimentary and tectonic processes shaping the Ganges-Brahmaputra delta, which hosts and supports over 200 million people. While the main motive is fundamental understanding, this project is contributing to the solution of unprecedented engineering and social problems largely derived from the ongoing rapid development and urbanization of the region.  The study area is centered at the eastern end of the Himalayan mountains. Active tectonic and surface processes in this area are quantitatively supreme and international in reach. Furthermore, our field-based collaborative research establishes a common cross-cultural denominator that has clearly positive effects on both the direct practitioners -- particularly the students -- and on those that participate vicariously, via documentaries and other pieces done on our projects.

Water-Agriculture-Livelihood Security in India

Upmanu Lall, Alan and Carol Silberstein Professor of Engineering, Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering and Department of Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics; Director, Columbia Water Center; Senior Research Scientist, International Research Institute for Climate and Society

Chronic water shortage and groundwater depletion have emerged as the leading challenge for food security in India. Agriculture consumes over 90% of water in India, and given the high climate variability, irrigation is the key to adequate crop yields, reliable production and farmer income. A variety of government subsidy and food procurement programs has led to the adoption of sub-optimal cropping patterns and has caused a dramatic increase in groundwater pumping. Increased pumping is fast depleting the groundwater resources. It also translates into increased power consumption, leading to unsustainable high levels of budgetary deficits as well as high carbon emissions.

Recognizing the diversity in climate, soils, agricultural practices and socio-economic factors across India, the USAID supported WEALS program seeks to address the water-agriculture-livelihood connect for states of Gujarat, Punjab and Jharkhand. The program includes, on-field engagement with farmers to test and scale up adoption of appropriate water saving technologies and practices while maintaining yield and income; providing them with access to reliable markets and technologies through corporate engagement in farming; and enabling on-farm best practices to manage chronic risk induced by groundwater depletion and climate risk, through the use of ICT system that provides customize guidance to farmers.

Multi-purpose R&D pilot projects for assessing the feasibility of cost effective and sustainable technologies for drinking water storage and distribution in rural areas in Jharkhand

Upmanu Lall, Alan and Carol Silberstein Professor of Engineering, Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering and Department of Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics; Director, Columbia Water Center; Senior Research Scientist, International Research Institute for Climate and Society

Despite having a high average rainfall of about 1400 mm, Jharkhand faces numerous challenges related to the provision of water for human consumption, agriculture, mining, energy production and industry. 90 per cent of the total rainfall received by the state amounting to 1150 mm falls during the months from June to September. The unique topography of the region which leads to high runoff potential of the State armed with low water conservation and retention efforts locally adds to the misery.

The identification of appropriate technologies, policies, analytical tools, and strategies for impact assessment and feedback for improvement of water systems effectiveness is critical to help Jharkhand improve its GDP per capita and the quality of life for all citizens. The project with the Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation, Government of Jharkhand seeks to research the feasibility of cost effective sustainable technology for rainwater harvesting and means of harnessing water stored in coal and stone mine pits. The project through collaboration with different stakeholders explores the feasibility of cost effective technology to provide safe drinking water on a sustainable basis to the majority of rural population.

Improving food and livelihood security in Punjab through water-energy-agriculture management under climate change and variability

Upmanu Lall, Alan and Carol Silberstein Professor of Engineering, Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering and Department of Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics; Director, Columbia Water Center; Senior Research Scientist, International Research Institute for Climate and Society

Water Resource and Flood & Erosion Risk Mitigation Planning in Assam

Upmanu Lall, Alan and Carol Silberstein Professor of Engineering, Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering and Department of Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics; Director, Columbia Water Center; Senior Research Scientist, International Research Institute for Climate and Society

Evaluating the Technical and User Sustainability of Defluoridation Treatment in India

Katherine Alfredo, Post-Doctoral Fellow, Columbia Water Center, Earth Institute

When over 2 billion people gained access to improved water sources, the UN proclaimed the Millennium Development Goal related to providing access to water as being met irrespective of source reliability and contamination. Today, 90% of India’s rural population has access to an improved water source; however, much of this success is based on groundwater sources often containing geogenic contaminants like fluoride. Currently, fluoride contamination of drinking water is prevalent in 20 of the 27 Indian states across the country. Too often the issue is addressed from a single silo of an academic department or development agency; an interdisciplinary approach is needed to solve this problem.

The objective of the proposed research is to provide a comprehensive analysis of sustainable defluoridation with due consideration of implemented treatment and user acceptability and uptake in the Indian state of Maharashtra. The project reaches across disciplines to investigate (1) the performance, operation, and maintenance of currently implemented technology to meet current and predicted future fluoride contamination, and (2) individual and social determinants of acceptability and use of implemented treatment technology.



Global Citizenship Education

William Gaudelli, Associate Professor of Social Studies and Education and Program Coordinator, Teachers College 

This project is conducted in partnership with the Akanksha Foundation in Mumbai and Pune. The Akanksha Foundation in Mumbai and Pune are working on two interrelated activities, the development of English-medium charter schools that aim to promote greater engagement on part of students in learning while providing them with a Ministry education that actually serves them moving into college and careers. They are working with some of the most economically distressed people in these cities, slum-dwellers in particular and ravaged schools. They also have an afterschool program with historically and economically marginalized students that aims to promote community inquiry and engagement. Students choose an issue of concern to their community (access to clean water, sexual exploitation of youth), learn about the issue through interviews, observations and focus groups, and then intern with an NGO working to address the issue. These programs are ongoing and will be featured in an upcoming book on global citizenship education.

Addressing Inequities in Primary Schooling with an Ecologically-Based Comprehensive Education Curriculum for Teachers: A Capacity-Building and Research Effort in India

Madhabi Chatterji, Associate Professor of Measurement- Evaluation & Education and Director, Assessment and Evaluation Research Initiative (AERI), Teachers College

The purpose of the proposed project will be to build capacity in selected teacher education institutions and non-government organizations in India, in designing, implementing and conducting formatively- oriented research on a curriculum to prepare primary level teachers to teach children from the poorest neighborhoods guided by an ecologically-based, comprehensive model of education. The project will mounted and managed  by the Assessment and Evaluation Research Initiative (AERI) at Teachers College-Columbia University (TC) led by Professor Madhabi Chatterji. AERI will serve as the vehicle through which the capacity-building and research efforts will be operationalized. An interdisciplinary team of faculty partners from TC, Columbia University and outside institutions; the Columbia Global Center|South Asia located in Mumbai, India (CGC-SA); and the Department of Education at the University of Calcutta in Kolkata, India, have presently committed to collaborate with AERI on the project. The two institutional level partners for the project will be Teachers College, Columbia University and the University of Calcutta. The timeline for the project is 2015-18.



In Song and Stone: Performance and Community Formation in Early Modern India

Yogi Trivedi, Adjunct Professor, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism

This project explores the relationship between performative media—manuscripts, music, and temple inscriptions—and religious community formation in 19th century Gujarat, India. The rise of Narendra Modi to the office of Prime Minister has trained international attention anew on the state of Gujarat in northwestern India. In religious terms there has been considerable interest not only in his involvement in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a conservative Hindu organization, but also in other groups typically aligned with the Hindu right and specifically with him—in particular, members of the Swaminarayan Sampraday, both in Gujarat itself and in the international Gujarati diaspora. The growth of the Swaminarayan Sampraday "as the new face of Hinduism" requires to think beyond it's current presence and organizational efficiency to its formative period. In particular, it focuses on three culturally distinct poet-musicians of the Swaminarayan Sampraday—whose work in the formative period of the community had a defining role in the coherence the community displays today. The patterns of expansive sectarian organization that make the Swaminarayan Sampraday so noticeable today in India and the diaspora carry forward a momentum that can already be observed in the poetry and song of the earliest decades of its formation. The project asks questions about the role of performative media in religious community formation and the transmission of a secular identity in Hindu traditions.


Urban Development

Technological learning across agriculture and industry: Urban-rural economic development in Brazil, India, and U.S.

Smita Srinivas, Technological Change  Lab (TC-Lab) Director, Urban Planning Program, GSAPP

In the past 50 years, U.S., Brazil, and India have emerged as important examples of how to build innovative capabilities for development. All have high industrial dynamism. However, regional outcomes and productivity gains in agriculture and manufacturing have been very uneven and plans and policies for the two sectors de-linked from each other and changes in skills, employment, and new markets.

It remains an open question under what conditions decentralized industrial governance and the crafting of economic plans and policies works best under the 73rd and 74th Amendments. The research team would like to understand how companies function as urban and regional actors in sectors such as machine tools which have important bridging functions in both manufacturing and agriculture. They do this by investigating learning and productivity in Brazil and India, with a special focus on plans and policies for decentralized industrial governance. The project has implications for new forms of multilateralism through industry associations and the state: in skills for youth employment and for economic effects and planning processes that affect neighbourhoods, cities, and regions.  

This is a mixed-methods economics study of urbanization, using a range of quantitative, qualitative, and visual data. The research team analyzes the gains – economic and political – from machine tools and machine improvements supplying both agriculture and industry. These have immense spatial and employment spread in the Mumbai region (Maharashtra) and Bangalore region (Karnataka).