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Fire, disease, layoffs threaten transient poor

Jakarta Post - October 17, 2006

Anissa S. Febrina, Jakarta – It was a hot afternoon last Wednesday in North Jakarta's Kapuk Sawah, a day that would surely test those who were fasting. Just when it seemed things could not get any worse, they did.

Workers, students and street vendors living in the crowded kampong witnessed a terrible scene: their homes, burning.

Several families were able to rescue their belongings. They sat surrounded by their mattresses, TVs, DVDs and clothes. 35-year-old factory worker Darmiyono, however, had nothing left.

"I had no time to rescue anything. I was too late," the man said. In less than 20 minutes, his family of five suddenly had nothing: no shelter, and not a single possession but the clothes they were wearing. Suddenly, they were poor.

Not far from the area, in a kampong in Kapuk Muara, an 80-year-old widow talked about how her three children were forced to drop out of elementary school when her husband died of tuberculosis 20 years ago.

"We were hoping that our children could use their education to find a better life than the one we had. When they had to leave school because I had no money, I immediately thought they could not (escape poverty)," Lindahwati said.

Conventional wisdom would blame fate for Darmiyono and Lindahwati's poverty.

Studies and reports, on the other hand, cite more complex causes of transient poverty. Surging inflation tops the list, since it leaves those who were slightly above the poverty line suddenly unable to purchase basic necessities.

A March report from the Central Statistics Agency found that some 30.29 percent of the "almost poor" population, along with 11.82 percent of the "poverty-prone" and 2.29 percent of the "non-poverty prone" had joined the ranks of the poor this year. The rising prices of staple foods, transportation and housing were listed as the cause.

But in a city like Jakarta, where the poor live in crowded slums where houses are attached to each other and sanitation seems to be non-existent, fire and infectious diseases are more threatening than inflation. With the addition of layoffs, Jakarta's poor face a wide variety of hazards.

Fire-prone areas like North Jakarta's Penjaringan and Pademangan see their residents move up and down the poverty line on a regular basis.

In the first nine months of 2006, there were 351 fires, mostly in crowded kampongs, causing a total loss of Rp 52 billion (US$5.6 million). Last year there were 686, with a total loss of Rp 144.7 billion.

According to a 2003 study, Jakarta's slums sprawl over a total area of 1,663.71 hectares, with a population of 555,540.

To achieve this year's theme of "Working Together out of Poverty", as outlined by today's International Day for the Eradication of the Poverty, it would surely take more than just direct subsidies. There must also be steps to ensure that people do not fall into poverty by losing all their property to fire, or losing a breadwinner to an infectious disease.