Anissa S. Febrina, Jakarta – It was not yet afternoon, but North Jakarta's sun had already exhausted 11-year-old Syaiful last Saturday.
Beads of perspiration ran down his forehead, soaked his worn-out T-shirt and trickled down his right arm that gripped a black bucket with a yellowish plastic bottle in it. His bare feet were black and dusty.
While other children his age might still be sitting in front of the television watching their favorite cartoons, Ipul – as the second grade dropout is called by his friends – had his own playground. "Another truck! Another truck! This one is mine," shouted Ipul to his friends as a fuel container truck approached.
The five children squatting along an alley beside a fuel depot in North Jakarta's Plumpang merely shrugged while Ipul chased the truck driving at around 15 kilometers an hour. The driver did not stop.
Several years of "training" has made Ipul quick enough to open the tank's cap with his left hand and push the nozzle of the plastic bottle inside with his right. In less than five minutes, he ran back to his friends as a tenth of his bottle had been filled with kerosene drained from the truck.
Ipul does this 12 hours a day – seven days a week – to bring home up to Rp 600,000 a month. "My father used to do this, my brother, too. Now, I am big enough to join them," he smiled proudly, half raising his plastic bucket and bottle as if they were the trophies.
Dozens of children his age carry the label anak-anak tetesan (drip kids), a term derived from what they do for a living: chasing returning fuel trucks to steal a liter or two that is left inside.
"In five years, I will be allowed to do that and I will become a boss when I grow up," said Ipul pointing to several older boys lifting cans of collected fuel into a cart.
According to locals, the "profession" has existed since state oil company Pertamina opened its fuel depot in Plumpang in the 1960s, the second after its first depot in Tanjung Priok. Lower-class Jakartans residing in the area saw a business opportunity as they watched tanks being emptied, leftover fuel dripping from their tanks.
After delivering orders to gasoline stations or factories, the insides of the trucks' tanks are usually not really empty. Improper draining during delivery leaves up to two liters of gasoline, diesel fuel or kerosene in the tanks.
Armed with plastic bottles and nozzles attached to them, a boy can siphon off the leftover fuel, collect it until the bottle is full and sell it to local oil bosses.
"A boss like me used to be able to collect up to 20 drums of diesel a day. Now, it is only three as many people have copied this business in Kebon Jeruk (West Jakarta) and other spots," said 72-year-old Wasiyem. It is fuel bosses like Wasiyem that recruit children as "field workers" for their business. The boys' nerve and speed are the only things that can beat fast-moving fuel trucks.
And so for generations, Plumpang has seen reckless youths willing to risk their lives for a few drops of fuel and a small sum of money to support their families.
"There was a 10-year old drip kid, Satria, who was run over by a fuel truck two years ago. Since then, children below 14 are only assigned inside the depot," said 20-year-old Basuki who has been in the business since he was 12.
After several decades, the community of fuel thieves in Plumpang has established its own rules of the game. As Basuki said, smaller children can only be found working inside the depot while older ones who were mature enough to assess the risk chase after fuel trucks on the streets. Meanwhile, adults take care of the marketing, and of course the money.
This is an world turned upside down. Parents letting their children loose on the streets in the hope that they will bring home some money and adults consciously allowing adolescents to risk their lives for the sake of their business. Now, where is the sense in that?