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  • Writer's pictureMallika Gupta

Gendered Policies of India: Swachh Bharat Mission (Part 1: The Problem)

Updated: Dec 19, 2023

In ‘Gendered Usage of Public Spaces1,’ noted academician Shilpa Phadke recalls her study of public toilets for women in a railway station in Mumbai which revealed that of the four functional toilets in the railway station, only one could be used by women (at certain times of the day), whereas men could use any of the four, for free, anytime. Where an argument can be made that there are fewer facilities for women because there are fewer women than men who use that railway station, particularly at night, Phadke argues that it is the fewer and inaccessible facilities that make women feel unwelcome in a public space such as the railway station.

Although a human right, proper sanitation facilities are rarely available to women in the public domain which significantly reduces the amount of time, and degree of comfort with which they can occupy public spaces, since they are unable to relieve themselves in a hygienic and safe manner. In some cases, while a toilet may be present, it does not cater to women’s specific social requirements such as safety, menstruation or breast feeding, to name a few. In order to address women’s access to public toilets, this article discusses the most recent government sanctioned sanitation mission- the ‘Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM)’ through a lens of gender, and offers specific modification targeted at providing better sanitation opportunities to women, in urban cities such that they too may comfortably experience the city with a same sense of ownership and belonging that men do.

Key Successes and Limitations

Launched in 2014, the Swachh Bharat Mission is the largest sanitation programme in the world, affecting and improving the lives of millions of Indians with respect to toilet access

and hygiene. Allotted a budget of Rs. 62,009 Crore, the key targets of the urban component of SBM include the construction or upgradation of toilets for households defecating in public (80% of population), communities defecating in public (20% of population) and floating population in public toilets (5% of population). Additionally, the guidelines lay emphasis on improving solid waste management systems, supported by Information, Education and Communication (IEC), Public Awareness and Capacity Building. Of these targets, 108% of the intended target for household toilets (62.4 lakh) and 118% of the intended target for community and public toilets (Over 6 lakh) has been achieved. Despite these impressive figures, when assessed from the lens of gender, some key concerns arise both at the planning and implementation stage:

1. Dis-proportionate allocation of funds

In the six years of its implementation, SBM has had an immense overemphasis on toilet construction and gaining of Open Defecation Free status. Within the first four years itself, the government had sanctioned 58% of its total budget to this construction, despite the original allocation being only 33% while the 50% allocated towards improving solid waste management was reduced to 38%. In 2017-18, states spent only 1.8% of the Centre’s allocated to IEC instead of the prescribed 8% and that too was directed towards media publicity on radio, TV or in print, rather than on grassroots-level awareness campaigns. Due to this, despite the construction of toilets on a large scale, most of them still remain unused. It is also crucial to note that the SBM-U guidelines, while providing clear guidelines for the allocation of funds towards the construction of ‘public toilets’ and ‘urinals,’ do not allocate any funds specifically to the research or construction of gender-sensitive toilets.

2. Inadequate research and non-inclusive policies

Despite ‘promotion of social inclusion by improving sanitation for women and marginalised communities’ being a key objective of the programme, the set of guidelines provided for SBM-U (urban) does not include any sections on gender sensitive sanitation strategies. While the guidelines for SBM-G (rural) carefully highlights issues of privacy, safety from sexual harassment and gender-based violence as part of the guidelines, SBM-U only states that “Care should be taken to ensure that these facilities have adequate provision for separate toilets and bathing facilities for men, women and the physically disabled”.

3. Slippage (Implementation)

Slippage, a common effect of sanitation programmes, refers to the lack of sustainability of toilet use or a return to previous unhygienic behaviour which in this case is the practice of open defecation. Given the scale of implementation in India, slippage is expected and must be countered using sustained efforts towards physical maintenance and behavioural change. Unfortunately, while the studies recognise issues like long distances, unavailability of water, and more recently the onset of the COVID-19 virus as contributing factors, issues of gender-based violence and lack of security to women’s lives, privacy and safety are not recognised as a cause of slippage. In order to increase women’s access to public spaces, the reason for their unwillingness to use public toilet must also be carefully analysed.

Cover Art by Vishnu Vasudevan


  1. Phadke, Shilpa. "Gendered Usage of Public Spaces; A case study of Mumbai." In The Fear that Stalks, by Sarah Pilot and Lora Prabhu, 51-80. Zubaan Books, 2012.


  3. Johari, A. (2019, February 04). The Modi Years: How successful is the Swachh Bharat Mission or Clean India campaign? Retrieved January 31, 2021


  5. Purty, N, & Saith, R. (2020, November 18). India's Swachh Bharat Mission: How can toilet use be sustained? Retrieved January 31, 2021.


  7. Vishwanath, Kalpana Mehrotra, Surabhi Tandon. "‘Shall We Go Out?’ ; Women’s Safety in Public Spaces in Delhi." Economic and Political Weekly, April 28, 2007

  8. Jacobs, Jane. Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York, USA: Random House, 1961.

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