In the War on Beggars, Who’s Right and Who’s Wrong?
While most of the city slept during the wee hours of Monday, just a couple of days before Idul Fitri, for those begging for some Ramadan generosity, the day had already begun.
At around 1 a.m., a pickup truck passing through the upscale Pondok Indah area in South Jakarta made a right turn at the intersection near Carrefour in Lebak Bulus. The truck slowed down as it tried to hide in the shadows, away from the probing street lights, before coming to a complete stop near a bus shelter.
A dark-skinned man well into his 40s alighted, lit up a clove cigarette and opened the truck bed. The loud clank was masked only by the audible sigh of relief from the passengers — seven people who had spent an hour and a half cramped together traveling from a marble quarry in Cibinong, West Java.
“The quarry is closed for the holidays,” a man who identified himself as Risman told the Jakarta Globe. “We are laborers, we get daily wages. If the pit is closed what are we going to eat? So we come here every Idul Fitri to beg.”
Risman’s group arrived early enough to claim a good spot along the busy Jalan Iskandar Muda, which is littered with marble covered houses and expensive imported cars.
By 3 a.m. the street was flooded with beggars of all kinds — from children posing as abandoned youngsters to those pretending to be disabled. Some were pushing carts while others were carrying babies, but they all had one thing on their mind: exploiting the generosity people usually display during the holy month of Ramadan.
“I usually occupy a spot near the intersection of [Jalan] Margaguna and [Jalan] Haji Nawi,” 67-year-old Kasman said, as he sat on the sidewalk in front of Pondok Indah Mall, cleaning chopsticks from a box of Japanese food a group of teenagers had given him earlier that day.
The rice had already spoiled, but Kasman, who has been scavenging Jakarta’s dumps for more than 35 years, was still grateful.
“I just ate everything else. Maybe I can still sell the Styrofoam and give the rice to my chicken,” he said.
Kasman stretched his legs, which had taken him from one upscale residential area to the next for the last six hours. Years of experience had taught him how to identify where people with kind hearts live and their Ramadan charity routines.
His Ramadan days begin at home after breaking the fast at dusk. He parks his cart in a nearby Pondok Indah mosque and waits for generous worshipers to leave after their evening prayers.
He then walks along Jalan Radio Dalam, where hawkers and semi-permanent restaurants are a plentiful source of trash. Departing customers occasionally take pity on him and give him cash or sometimes food.
So far this year, he’s been able to collect anywhere from Rp 50,000 to Rp 200,000 ($6 to $23) a night begging, easily trumping his usual Rp 15,000 to Rp 20,000 per day from scavenging. “What can you buy for 20,000 rupiah these days?” he asked.
Late on Monday, the government announced that Idul Fitri would fall on Wednesday instead of Tuesday as had been expected. But the news only reached the beggars early on Tuesday morning.
Word also spread about how Muhammdiyah, the second-largest Muslim organization in the country, would celebrate Idul Fitri on Tuesday as planned.
So at 2 a.m. on Tuesday, the streets of Pondok Indah were clear and quiet as beggars set off to where Muhammadiyah members were scheduled to hold their Idul Fitri prayers.
One beggar, 45-year-old Carmen, was kept out of the loop and stayed behind. “Maybe that’s a good thing. I can beg for money from the Muhammadiyahs this morning and from the rest on Wednesday,” she said.
A Never-Ending Problem
A streak of blue light approached rapidly from around the corner and Carmen instinctively inched closer toward the bush and pulled her headscarf tighter around her face. The police patrol car quickly drove past, to her relief.
Just before Ramadan started, Jakarta Governor Fauzi Bowo announced a campaign to “clean” the capital of beggars and buskers. He warned that anyone caught panhandling would be arrested and put through a rehabilitation program.
Kian Kelana, head of the city’s social affairs agency, said that more than 2,000 beggars, buskers and street children, known collectively as PMKS, had been taken into custody during Ramadan.
“We provided them with skills training, so they will have the skills to get a proper job rather than returning to the streets and panhandling,” he said last week.
He cited training in skills such as repairing air-conditioners and cellphones, gardening, cooking and beauty salon experience. But one beggar, 47-year-old Siswanto, is anything but skill-less. Usually, he works as a construction worker or a laborer, waiting at the side of the road with his shovel for trucks carrying sand or building materials in need of his service to take him to a construction site or mine.
“What else can you do during Ramadan? The shops are closed, construction stops, the factories are closed,” he said.
In front of a Pondok Indah mosque, hundreds had gathered waiting patiently for prayers to end. Siswanto pushed his way into the crowd as one worshiper gave Rp 5,000 notes to the beggars.
Ten minutes later he returned with Rp 5,000, a cut eyebrow and a bruised rib. “One guy elbowed me as we scuffled to be the first in line,” he said.
He then rushed off again as another worshipper distributed alms, this time Rp 10,000 notes.
The War on Beggars
Many residents applauded Fauzi’s efforts to get beggars off the streets when he announced the plan, saying that they often felt harassed by the gauntlet of panhandlers whenever they stopped at an intersection.
Some residents said they had been traumatized by aggressive beggars who had slapped their cars or cursed them for not giving them money.
But those who backed Fauzi’s plan were likely disappointed as there seemed to be just as many beggars as usual on the streets.
“It goes beyond poverty. It has become cultural,” Henny Warsilah, a sociologist from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), said recently. “Begging is a habit now. It’s even a profession for some people.”
He added that Indonesia’s “begging culture” had worsened over the past five years, and that a growing number of beggars were not even poor.
Then there are those, like some city councilors, who say the governor had missed the mark completely by not addressing the root cause of the problem: unemployment and poverty.
Data from the city’s social affairs agency shows there are 7,315 street children in Jakarta, while the Central Statistics Agency (BPS) estimated that this year there were 363,000 people in the capital living below the poverty line, surviving on no more than Rp 355,000 per month.
But Kian, the agency’s head, said most of the people taken off the streets and put in shelters were not from Jakarta and would be sent back to their hometowns. He dismissed criticism that Jakarta’s program to alleviate poverty and create jobs had failed.
“Most of the PMKS come from West Java and Central Java, and we’re coordinating with the provincial social affairs offices there to send them back to their families,” he said last week.
The administration blamed a lack of development in provinces outside Jakarta as the main cause for the surge in the number of beggars in the capital.
But Kasman, the beggar, claimed that most of the beggars came from inside the capital, staying largely invisible the rest of the year. There are those like him who work as street sweepers, scavengers and vendors the rest of the year, and turn to panhandling when Ramadan comes.
The Jakarta Police suspected that the influx of panhandlers was organized by the so-called beggars mafia. They said the “mafia” rented children for begging and then brought in truckloads of beggars from outside the city during Ramadan.
Even after arresting 2,000 PMKS this year the administration is having a hard time proving that the mafia exists.
Beggar Risman, who came to Jakarta from West Java, said the idea that a syndicate was behind the panhandling was laughable.
“We hitched a ride here with our neighbor who agreed to give us a lift. He will return tomorrow to pick us up,” he said.
“Does the government truly believe that there are people willing to spend millions to transport people from faraway places in return for the couple of hundred thousand that we get from begging? We don’t take pride in begging, and if we could we would rather do something else. I’m sure many poor people feel the same way.”