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Getting on the Grid: A Field Experiment on Bottom-Up Political Pressure and Access to Essential Public Services

Nikhar Gaikwad, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Columbia University
Encina Hall West, Room 400

Water is essential for human life, yet governments frequently leave their most vulnerable citizens to rely on informal channels to access this basic necessity. What interventions can incentivize governments to provide public services such as water to citizens trapped in informality? We theorize that for formalized services to materialize, bureaucratic hurdles and politician inertia need to be jointly overcome. Using a large factorial field experiment in Mumbai, we assess how a bottom-up bureaucratic facilitation drive and political pressure campaign impacted the likelihood that informal settlement-dwellers secured municipal water connections. Consistent with our theory, we find that bureaucratic assistance significantly improved citizens' ability to access formalized water when combined with the political pressure campaign but only in settlements that were eligible for formalization under the existing policy framework. We further show that while bureaucratic assistance was sufficient to spur citizens through the initial stages of formalization, political advocacy was essential to shaping its efficacy in ensuring "last mile" service delivery. Our findings illuminate how bottom-up pressure can motivate otherwise reluctant bureaucrats and politicians to grant citizens off-the-grid their basic human rights.


Nikhar Gaikwad is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science and a member of the Committee on Global Thought at Columbia University. He specializes in international and comparative political economy, with a focus on the politics of economic policymaking, business-state relations, and identity. Substantively, he works on trade, migration, and environmental policymaking. He has a regional specialization in India, which he studies in comparative perspective with other democratic emerging economies.

Gaikwad’s research focuses on two types of competition that recur in the political arena: economic contestation and identity conflict. A main line of inquiry studies how cultural divisions interact with economic rivalries when actors contest distributive policies. A second stream of work investigates how conflicts of interest between economic agents influence the policymaking process. He analyzes competing interests as a theoretical lens to study questions related to representation, policy change, and development.