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Beggars to pay high price for city's clean-up

Sydney Morning Herald - September 15, 2007

Mark Forbes, Jakarta – "Money mister," are the first words from sweet-faced, five-year-old Lia's mouth as she scampers between cars at a busy Jakarta intersection. They are also the third, fourth, fifth and sixth words.

Many thousands live a hand-to-mouth existence on Jakarta's grimy streets, squatting beside highways or train tracks, begging or busking for a couple of dollars a day.

Like Lia and her family, they have been driven to the jam-packed capital by the impoverishment and lack of opportunity across Indonesia.

An estimated 2 million Jakartans live in abject poverty, scrabbling for the few work opportunities available. Some try to sell trinkets or rice cakes, some scavenge and some beg.

This week's start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan – which urges an avoidance of vice and promotes charity – usually means a surge in takings. But it also saw an announcement from Jakarta's administration that beggars, and those who give to them, will be prosecuted.

The by-law will also apply to buskers and the capital's 200,000 or so street vendors. It has been linked to attempts to evict squatter communities and seize their land.

To some, it demonstrates an arrogant Indonesian elite attempting to sweep the poor out of sight and ignore the causes of their plight.

For city administration spokesman Arie Budhiman, it is a question of creating an orderly city. "Every city has rights to be a clean, ordered and convenient city," Mr Budhiman says. "As you know, Australian cities are very nice – we want to be like that".

Beggars will have a three-month education and grace period, before facing arrest by 20,000 public order officers, he said. Then they must "help themselves" and return to their villages. "They come over to Jakarta by their own decision, so now they have to go back there by their own effort. If not, they will face sanction," he said.

"Everybody faces sanction, including people who give them money. The media should not glorify them, as if being a beggar is a profession that needs to be defended."

The head of the Urban Poor Coalition, Wardah Hafid, believes the poor need protection from the administration's "program of beautification and power abuse". "The root cause of the problems is poverty and job opportunity; they are just bypassing this issue," Mrs Hafid said.

She believes moves to evict squatters are driven by a desire to skim some of the income from selling the land they occupy to private interests.

The anti-begging by-law will prove unenforceable, she said, providing another opportunity for corruption and forcing beggars to bribe police. Several beggars and buskers said they had already been questioned by police, but had no alternative means of survival.

Budi works an intersection with his wife and child near the luxury mall Plaza Senayan, earning about $5 a day. Without it, they would not survive, he said. "The Government should provide jobs before banning us from doing what we are doing now."

Jumping on Jakarta's crowded buses, Raymond and his friends strum guitars and sing for donations. They would also like work. "What else can we do?" Raymond asked. "We don't want to create chaos. We simply want to get something to eat." They would continue to busk despite the ban and try to run if police came, he said.

Mr Budhiman, said claims that beggars had no alternative were a "beggar's mentality, the mentality of lazy people; they can only beg people to help them".

"If you do a research about these people you will know that they belong to a syndicate that manages beggars. These people are willing to exploit other fellow human beings, including children," he said.

Some criminals did organise beggars, said Mrs Hafiid, but they are the ones who should be arrested, not the beggars. Health care, education and work were the only long-term solutions. "Many people have no alternative, they have no job, they have no skills, they have to go to the streets," she said.

[With Karuni Rompies.]