Beggar, thy neighbor

Beggar, thy neighbor

It’s the season of giving — but you can’t give. A fine of Rp 50 million (US$5,300) threatens anyone in Jakarta caught handing money to beggars, buskers, U-turn men or any other of their ilk.

Yet another controversial policy from departing Governor Sutiyoso, the newly endorsed bylaw on public order faces the challenging month of Ramadhan to unwittingly test, yet again, the credibility of the capital’s leaders.

We trust that many residents would give the thumbs up to Sutiyoso for this contentious policy, which comes on the heels of an uproar over his plans to build a busway route through the elite suburb of Pondok Indah.

Without beggars and people asking for donations for mosques, Jakartans would be unburdened of the choice of whether to give in or dismissively wave them away like a feudal lord. A hefty fine would remind everyone that begging is a crime that takes two to tango, as the law against graft does.

This city has never had pretensions to welcome — let alone protect — the poor and destitute. Governor after governor has issued decrees to restrict newcomers to Jakarta. Pack up and go home if you don’t have a job, the message has always been, this aspiring city doesn’t want more slums and eyesores.

Each year, after the Idul Fitri holidays, a few hundred people get caught for failing to show their Jakarta IDs and are sent home on the next train. But each year tens of thousands manage to settle down, with the help of networks that inform them about the best available opportunities for income.

Begging and busking are among those opportunities. What is new about this public order bylaw is that anyone tempted to give a Rp 500 coin to a dirty faced child with a baby is now a criminal.

Bali’s Denpasar has a similar ban in place, apparently with considerable success, if a cursory look at its cleaner streets is any guide. Mataram, the capital of Lombok, wants to follow in its neighbor’s footsteps, to curb its own growing population of street children.

When reports revealed that Jakarta was to have this new bylaw, the question was if there would be any employment programs to go with it. Does Governor Sutiyoso and his incoming replacement, Fauzi Bowo, have a plan to create new jobs for the 3-in-1 jockeys, bottled water sellers, newspaper boys and toy sellers at the city’s intersections? If not, public order officials will be chasing these people around for a long time.

Indonesia does not have the Western system of unemployment benefits. Few among the city’s unemployed, estimated at some 600,000, can truly afford to be idle. Beggars and buskers — apart from the genuinely lazy and those recruited by criminal syndicates — are doing what they do because it is their last resort.

At every red light the motorist is then left to wonder which of these categories of beggar is the one approaching her window? One feels foolish enriching a criminal syndicate exploiting the poor or contributing to a prolonged habit. But knowing that there is no social safety net, one often ends up fishing out a rupiah note. It’s much better than harboring a nagging guilt, and it makes the beggar or the noisy singer leave pronto.

Enter Ramadhan, when one is reminded to be charitable. Stinginess, after all, does not sit well with a whole month of fasting. When the bylaw takes effect people might still try to be on their best behavior and give food, for instance, instead of cash, to the multitudes who come from the villages to cash in on the annual season of giving.

While facing what many consider to be an unfair sanction on kindness, the public need to know how the administration will realistically change the city’s massive informal sector. A large-scale cash-for-work plan, like those following natural disasters, could be one way to reassure us that the poor are being taken care of.

Another approach would be the promotion of growth in Jakarta’s surrounding towns and villages, which could provide income for landless families which, we’re told, are the source of most of the city’s urban poor.

The fine could mean residents will now shun any extended hand. But until the question of what else is being done for the poor is answered, people should be forgiven for wondering if that single coin might just stop one youngster from plunging into desperation — and getting involved in crimes much more serious than evoking pity.

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