Dec 02, 2022 Last Updated 6:29 AM, Nov 29, 2022

Whose city?

Published: Jul 29, 2007

Vanessa Johanson

'During the economic crisis public transport drivers had a raw deal. The price of spare parts and fuel skyrocketed. Naturally they went on strike. But you know who organised them - the becak drivers!'

Romo Sudri and Palupi, and their colleagues at the Institut Sosial Jakarta (ISJ), spend their days organising those working in the so-called informal sector. Across Jakarta, they encourage them to challenge policies that prevent them from earning a reasonable income and living in reasonable dwellings.

No one knows for sure how many people make up the informal sector in Indonesia. Yet it is a central part of life. 'Imagine Jakarta without street vendors, building labourers and itinerant workers, garbage collectors (pemulung), street kids, home industries,' says Palupi. It could almost be said that this unacknowledged slice of the city community is actually its heart.

Romo Sudri and Palupi sit in ISJ's simple, dimly lit offices in Rawajaya, East Jakarta. Both are quiet-spoken. 'The informal sector have no legal protection whatsoever. All those bakso soup sellers are actually illegal. The urban poor workers - as we prefer to call them - are referred to by law as Social Welfare Problems (Penyandang Masalah Kesejahteraan Sosial). They have not been formally given any space, the law does not accept them as a real part of the community or economy. They don't pay tax. But I'd like to ask: how many conglomerates don't pay tax? Did Suharto ever pay tax?'

'The role of street vendors in the economy is ignored too. How would the newspaper companies, bottled drink companies and so on survive without them? Where do most of the office workers in Jakarta eat lunch? From street vendors of course. Yet these people are constantly evicted from their work locations and homes in so-called "city cleanup operations."'

Tension between the city administration and the urban poor - particularly becak (trishaw) drivers - is high. In some areas the streets are strewn with government-sponsored banners stating things like: 'This area has been cleansed of becaks'.

Development boom

Institut Sosial Jakarta was born in 1974 from the Sekolah Tinggi Filsafah. Its original goal was to move beyond philosophy to research and discuss the problems of the urban poor. One of its founders, John Muller, a German sociologist, was deported from Indonesia for his writing at the end of the 1980s. It was in the 1980s when ISJ decided to become more active in organising the urban poor and carrying out advocacy, as opposed to purely research.

'The 80's saw the development boom in Indonesia, accompanied by so much marginalisation of the poor. At the same time many NGOs became more involved in advocacy. In 1985 we established the Workers Consultation Bureau (Biro Konsultasi Perburuhan), which focused on education and case handling with factory workers. In 1989 Romo Sandyawan came to ISJ, and really consolidated the advocacy praxis.'

'We survived the repression of this era by studying the survival systems of the poor themselves. They have their own mechanisms, we used also what worked for them.'

Institut Sosial Jakarta enters poor communities hoping to catalyse but not lead activities. 'We can bring people together to talk about issues, we can suggest strategies, but we don't want to lead them. And we certainly don't want to use them for demonstrations for a particular issue. We want to organise them to work out their own strategies. This work is not very popular!'

ISJ has never been involved in welfare or income-generating activities. 'Actually, these people aren't poor,' says Romo Sudri. 'A becak driver can earn around Rp 30,000 (AU$6) a day, which is more than some taxi drivers earn, for example. They don't need charity, they need space. They need to know that they will be allowed to stay in one place and not be asked to pay illegal levies all the time.'

'The term slums (rumah kumuh) implies that the people who live there aren't interested in living clean lives. But they don't want to fix up their houses because they never know when they'll be moved on.'

The structural problems are great and long term. 'And it's not just in Jakarta,' says Palupi. 'Most cities have laws like the Public Order Regulation (Perda Ketertiban Umum) which regard the urban poor workers as filth.' This has been the attitude of the Jakarta administration since the days of governor Ali Sadikin, who said that trading in public places was illegal and those doing it should be swept out and go back to their villages.

'The people we work with are happy to pay tax, as long as they know that the system is clean. We surveyed the communities we worked with about what kind of government subsidies were needed and what for. They said they wanted subsidies for health and education, but hardly any wanted subsidies for their businesses. They just want to be allowed to go about their business, and for there to be no more harassment and no more monopolies.'

'We take a human rights rather than a charity approach. People have a right to earn their living unharrassed, it's not something they should have to beg for or be afraid about.'

Vanessa Johanson ( works for the conflict resolution organisation Common Ground in Jakarta. Contact ISJ: email, tel (62 21) 4786 3150 or tel/ fax (62 21) 489 7761.

Stop press: Up to 15,000 slum dwellers were made homeless in several cases of government-sponsored arson early in November. ISJ was there to accompany them.

Inside Indonesia 69: Jan - Mar 2002

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