Poverty's crusaders 'assault' the rich

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 April, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 April, 2001, 12:00am

THE POLITICIANS presiding over Jakarta's latest political crisis, currency tumble and perhaps national disintegration are doing so from lavish homes and luxury cars.

Many attend self-promoting seminars in designer batik and shoes, sign deals with gold-tipped pens, clock up VIP jaunts to Mecca, toying with excess food and mistresses all the time.

Being a sophisticated lot, fluent in home-grown mythologies of national pride and privilege, this Jakarta elite has taken on the language of reform, democracy and 'People Power' as they would a second or third facelift.

But the plight of the poor, for them seen only through frosted limousine windows, has merely deteriorated. Millions of Indonesians continue to subsist on 50 US cents (less than HK$4) a day. At least a third of Jakarta's people are homeless and lack the city identity card that would make residence in their own capital city legal. They face arbitrary eviction or dispossession as a daily reality. They experience no right to life, education, health and security as their leaders fritter away their wealth.

It is fitting, therefore, that the lowly becak, or cycle rickshaw, has become a symbol of the urban poor's power.

These attractive vehicles, on which the driver cycles behind a small carriage for two - or 10 - represent Indonesia's diversity through design and bring ease of movement to poorer neighbourhoods. Even the rich can recall how becaks took them to school in childhood villages. Only 15 years ago, it was possible to top off a night of partying with a becak ride home, trundling through hushed streets with a breeze on the face.

Nowadays, becaks survive with one vital difference: look carefully on the brightly painted backs of the becaks and a neat licence plate is visible, listing the driver's neighbourhood and number. This plate represents far more profound political change than all the hot air in parliament. It is a sign of a gradual politicisation of what Indonesians call the 'little people'. For these plates come not from a concerned or involved city administration but from a clever, colourful and challenging non-governmental organisation (NGO) called the Urban Poor Consortium (UPC).

The licence plate links becak drivers with colleagues nationwide and connects their daily struggle to protect their group. Drivers contribute what they can to a common fund, spent on welfare and political activities. They know that when the next axe falls on their right to survive, they will not be alone. Five thousand have signed up so far, and weekly meetings at the UPC office are held each Monday.

On the scale of Jakarta's poor, becak drivers do moderately well, but Jakarta's politicians have never approved. Former president Suharto banned the becak, tossing hundreds of them into Jakarta Bay in the late 1980s, saying the sweaty labour involved in powering a becak was an insult to the dignity of the Indonesian people. Besides, he added, the submerged becaks would provide havens for the bay's alleged marine life.

As Suharto fell from power in 1998 and economic crisis mixed with a decline of government, becaks burst back on to local streets seemingly overnight. President Abdurrahman Wahid also tried to ban the becak, but such a good living cannot be denied. The law now allows them to function in residential neighbourhoods only, but Jakarta's Governor Sutiyoso is appealing this in a bid to ban the becak once more.

That is why savvy becak drivers carry their UPC identity plates and join colourful rallies, in the most visible sign of a stirring of grass-roots consciousness. These men can muster hundreds of becaks to block roads as they advance on the presidential palace.

By so doing, they have converted something the elite disdains as a hangover from a primitive, poverty-ridden past into a symbol of resistance. The becak campaign is the beginning of informed and focused community pressure on a profoundly corrupt elite and, as such, is one of this country's few hopeful signs for the future.

It is a characteristic twist from the UPC crowd. Led by the dynamic Wardah Hafidz, this group of funky designers, committed reformists and community organisers is giving a voice, an identity and a platform with which to fight for basic rights.

Ms Hafidz's staff dreamed up the idea of a gigantic billboard showing what an average city-dweller survived on, next to an empty space where the country director of the World Bank, Mark Baird, was to fill in his own salary. Mr Baird, a remarkably empathic banker, admits the barb was effective. He was brave enough to accept Ms Hafidz's invitation to the event but blushingly refused to fill in the blank.

On a recent visit to the bungalow on Jakarta's outskirts, which is the nerve centre of the UPC, dynamism was barely evident. A dozen or so people were strewn across the floor in varying stages of undress and sleep.

It was a motley crowd, including Slamet and Piah, a couple who normally live alongside a railway track but are facing eviction even from that humble abode. They and the others were recovering, Ms Hafidz explained, from an exhausting demonstration at City Hall that day against the latest city budget.

This is one of the more extraordinary documents seen in recent times. According to a breakdown dissected on eye-catching UPC brochures, this budget sets aside just 12.67 trillion rupiah (about HK$9.4 million) a year for the poor of Jakarta.

Of that, about $1 million is set aside for 'social rehabilitation' of beggars, prostitutes and other street dwellers. Another million is for street children. A mere $148,554 is earmarked for food at schools. Other special nutritional needs total $687,000, offering - according to Ms Hafidz's calculations - about 500 rupiah (37 cents) per person per year.

There are more than 10 million people in Jakarta, almost half of whom scrape livings from the so-called informal sector - collecting rich people's rubbish, driving becaks, selling cigarettes and noodles or themselves at roadside stalls, begging, bothering and the like. By contrast, the budget for the Governor's personal private medical scheme is $57,936, and his annual wardrobe allowance is $29,711. His personal furniture allowance for his free government house - worth $356,902 - is $74,277 a year. His office furniture allowance is $2,469,715 a year, and his travel budget is $130,000 a year.

The cost of entertaining members of the city's local parliament is $1,263,855, more than the entire budget for helping street children. City legislators also recently received new free homes and cars, thanks to their own democratic rulings.

'The Jakarta 2001 city budget must be revised,' says Ms Hafidz. 'It is notoriously unjust. Two-thirds of the money goes on their own routine budget, leaving only a third for the people.'

The urban poor are those squatting on riverbanks, railway lines and public spaces. A family of up to five people will live on about 35,000 rupiah (about HK$26) a week. The children often do not get to school, because although it is supposed to be free, school involves expenses for books, shoes and uniforms. Becak drivers do better, earning about that much per day. They can afford to eat twice a day and have a bit left over for the lottery.

'The main problem is health, and for these people, if they have to go to hospital, it is the end of the world,' says Ms Hafidz. 'We said: 'You have to revoke and revise the budget, otherwise we will start civil disobedience'.'

Her demonstration techniques rely on novel forms of street theatre, marching bands, traditional costumes and dramatic visual displays. The medium is also the message, as the UPC aims to re-invigorate native cultural forms among the poor to spark some glimmers of self-esteem. A culture of informed resistance is also evolving. Guitars, drums and xylophones recently supported home-grown actors miming life on the economic tightrope, directly beneath the marble facade of the Grand Hyatt hotel.

Direct action seems only appropriate when the link between high-flying corruption and dispossession of the poor is so blatantly direct. The city budget increases land tax, for example, so the state railway is selling land beside its lines to cover the bill - throwing Slamet and Piah out of the shack they call home.

Beaming widely as he watched a video of earlier protest actions by himself and friends, Slamet has become a different man since he became what Ms Hafidz calls a 'community leader', the focal point of UPC's outreach to his railway-track neighbourhood. A couple of UPC community leaders are present in each of Jakarta's major neighbourhoods.

When each new issue comes up - be it the becaks, the budget or emergency rice distribution - Slamet spreads the information and campaign details to his neighbours.

He manages the combination of UPC budget and personal donations that help pay for their transport fares to a rally, and gets a feeling, he says, of being able at last to control some aspect of his existence.

The community organisation techniques draw a lot on Ms Hafidz's own experiences in a small neighbourhood in West Jakarta from 1993 to 1996. 'The economy was booming, so there were evictions every day. Every day, the bulldozers were coming in, and there was no advocacy for the displaced; they had no way to stop it,' she recalls.

'It took almost a year to be accepted by the local people. Their leaders had told them not to talk to us, saying we were communists or Christians. We had to spend a lot of late nights drinking with the residents to gain their trust,' she says, laughing.

In fact, she hails from a high-ranking Muslim family from the same town as Mr Wahid - Jombang in East Java. She is feminist and Muslim and admits to 'problems with ritual'.

Step by grinding step, Ms Hafidz's group brought a few improvements to the area, fixing small roads and utilities. Then she got hold of a plan to widen the roads, which if implemented, would have wiped out the community so painstakingly built. Her opposition made her a target of thugs routinely employed by local district heads.

Without strong backing or high visibility then, Ms Hafidz and her friends lost the argument and the developers had their way. Just as a major economic crisis hit in 1997, she founded the UPC, relying on her public profile and the growing masses of the disadvantaged to confront the elite with a force to be reckoned with.

'Elite politics here is a circus,' she says. 'The noise from parliament is deafening, but they're only fighting each other in their own interests.'

She refers to the parliamentary committee which found Mr Wahid guilty of involvement in corruption as a preliminary step towards his impeachment. It spent 135 billion rupiah to find the president guilty in a scandal involving perhaps 56 billion rupiah.

With her subtle touch of class, Ms Hafidz manages to wrong-foot more officials than just the World Bank's benignly blushing Mr Baird. Senior diplomats and aid officials admit to the frequent sagacity of her arguments and say the shock value presented by her organisation's genuine connection with Indonesia's masses is little short of revolutionary.

'It's my absolutely favourite NGO here, no doubt about it,' said a foreign aid expert, adding it was about time Indonesia saw some earthy 'Poor Power', instead of the current elite-managed exhibitions of so-called 'People Power'.

Vaudine England (vaudine@scmp.com) is the Post's Jakarta correspondent