Kamal Kar: Community-led Total Sanitation in Bangladesh

Why is sanitation such a passion for you?

The idea of people defecating in the open was very disturbing to me.

My involvement in sanitation began when I was invited by WaterAid to lead an evaluation mission of their water and sanitation project in Bangladesh, where open defecation was the norm. It disturbed me a lot.

As a child, I clearly remember that our toilet was located out of the house, but we had a toilet. My father’s job—he was an engineer in the Indian railways—allowed us to live in different states in India. I spent my childhood living in railway officers’ bungalows with large courtyards that you have to cross to reach the far end where the toilet usually was. They were typical colonial latrines where the squatting platform was high above the ground. Trays with a thin film of water and phenol mixture were placed under the squatting hole to capture urine and shit. ‘Jamadars’ or toilet cleaners collected and cleaned these trays. Gradually, these toilets were replaced by water-sealed sanitary latrines and brought inside the main house. I still remember my fear of ghosts while crossing the courtyard at night during an emergency.

Later on, while developing a number of successful local technologies with farming communities, I became a strong believer in participatory approaches to development and in local people’s knowledge. I was fascinated with the great diversity of knowledge and skills of Indian farmers.

During the mission in Bangladesh, it dawned on me that the best way to understand why open defecation was a prevailing practice is through participatory approaches. The participatory exercise we carried out in Mosmoil back in 2000 marked the birth of the CLTS approach.

Tell us more about your experience in Mosmoil?

On 16 February 2000, I was accompanied by representatives of WaterAid-Bangladesh and local NGO Village Education Resource Centre to Mosmoil, a village where subsidized latrine construction initiatives had failed to stop open defecation. When we arrived after lunch, more than 100 men, women, and children were gathered in the middle of the village around a map drawn on the ground. We then took a short walk around the village and found mountains of human shit pouring into ditches and ponds. The air was heavy with the filthy smell. By the time we returned to the map, a sizeable crowd had been following us. The women were vomiting and spitting profusely, covering their noses and mouths with their saris in utter disgust.

The community had erupted into animated discussions, debates, and analyses. People were shouting and blaming each other. Many people approached us and asked for help, pleading for free latrines. But then they realized that the purpose of our visit was not to build toilets or to ask them to stop defecating, so they decided that they would have to do something themselves. A group of children were already digging a pit in the corner of a field. This was the beginning of CLTS.

What are some of the challenges in implementing CLTS?

The most important challenge is changing the traditional mind-set of professionals, including engineers, planners, policy makers, donors, who often believe that constructing latrines for the poor—through household hardware subsidy, infrastructural interventions, top-down prescription of technologies, and hygiene education—is the only solution to the world’s sanitation problems. Donors and lenders still consider latrine construction as one of the easiest ways of spending money and disbursing loans to the governments of countries. Infrastructure intervention was always thought to be important over hygiene behavior change. CLTS is the reverse—there should be no subsidy, changing hygiene behavior is key, infrastructure comes second. CLTS is about building confidence on local people’s ability to change and on the power of local participation in making that happen.

Recently, the growing tendency of different agencies to use the CLTS label and dilute its basic principles and strengths has become a challenge and slows down CLTS progress.

What do you think makes CLTS stand out as an approach to providing access to improved sanitation?

CLTS stands out as an approach to providing easy access to sanitation to millions mainly because it is doable and achievable by the local communities themselves. CLTS not only breaks the myth that toilets are expensive, needs cement, iron, mason, engineering design, and other external inputs. It liberates poor communities from dependence on outsiders for cleaning up their shit and initiate collective behavioral change. It starts immediately and opens up great local innovations in design and use of local materials in building latrines. 

Some say that you have spawned a movement. What have been the CLTS movement’s major achievements so far?

Over the last 8 to 9 years, CLTS has spread in 43 countries across Asia, Africa, and Latin America. CLTS has become the basis of the national sanitation strategy of at least 7 countries. Roughly 20 million people across the world have been benefitting from CLTS. CLTS spread in Africa was like bushfire. UNICEF’s decision of no household hardware subsidy has been very effective in quick adoption of CLTS in many countries in Africa.

You were included in Foreign Policy magazine’s Top 100 Global Thinkers published in December 2010. How do you feel about being included in this list?

I felt good, mainly because the citation recognized work that has always been neglected in the development field. In the past, the work of sanitation professionals, especially on CLTS, was rarely recognized compared to their water counterparts. I was very happy when I heard that Foreign Policy recognized CLTS at par with the ideas of international political leaders, scientists, computer and software professionals, economists, and academics.

What’s next for CLTS and Kamal Kar?

There is a great need for many more high quality trainers of CLTS to reach out to many more countries. More than 2.4 billion people still don’t have access to sanitation. More than one billion still defecate in the open and 1 child in every 15 seconds die of diarrhea and other diseases. None of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa are on track in meeting the MDGs.  I am now more concerned with scaling up, institutionalizing, and mainstreaming CLTS in government.

What are the most important insights or lessons you can share from your sanitation work and experience in implementing the CLTS approach?

First of all, if facilitated properly, CLTS could work anywhere and can trigger lasting change in the hygiene behavior of communities, eventually empowering them to initiate many collective local actions leading to the improvement of their lives and livelihoods.

Second is that CLTS answers the million dollar question for the community: that ”we could do it” attitude; and for development workers: that “they could do it” realization. Many development organizations have started using CLTS as an entry point strategy to building community confidence. CLTS should not be seen or considered as an approach merely for sanitation but as a tool to alleviating poverty and increasing food security.

And third, with some help by international development agencies, including the UN and political leaders, CLTS help achieve the MDGs—not only the water and sanitation targets, but also the other goals as well.

About the Champion

Born in India, Kamal Kar is a specialist in livestock production, agriculture and natural resources, with an M.Sc. in Animal Husbandry and a Ph.D. in Agricultural Extension from Rani Durgavati University, Jabalpur, India. He worked as Chief Training Organizer in Farm Science Centers supported by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and as Administrator of a large cross breeding cattle farm supported by India’s National Dairy Development Board. He has developed innovative approaches in natural resources management and low-cost farming technologies.

Kamal developed the CLTS approach while evaluating a water and sanitation project in Mosmoil village, Rajshahi district, Bangladesh in 1999-2000. Though the project successfully constructed new latrines and was implemented fairly well, Kamal still observed the presence of human feces all over and vowed to understand why open defecation still persists. Kamal then persuaded the local NGO to stop subsidizing toilet construction and advocated change in attitude by drawing on intense local community participation to analyze their own sanitation situation and make the collective decision to stop the practice.

Kamal took an active role in the spread of CLTS in Asia, Africa, and Latin America over the last ten years, working with various international agencies. Today CLTS is being implemented in more than 43 countries across the world. At least seven countries have adopted CLTS in their respective national sanitation policies.

Kamal also founded the CLTS Foundation to link CLTS practitioners, policy makers, and governments. The CLTS Foundation is actively involved in enhancing the spread and scaling up of CLTS in countries where progress had been slow. Kamal has also published a Hand Book and Trainers Guide on CLTS, which have been translated into French, Spanish, Portuguese, Hindi, Bengali, Bahasa Indonesia, and other languages, and used by CLTS practitioners worldwide.

In 2010, Kamal was included in Foreign Policy Magazine’s top 100 global thinkers.