With Carts in Tow, Street Scavengers Brace for Capital Crackdown

JAKARTA ~ By day, scavengers pile rubbish into their carts and by night they creep inside them to sleep on the streets, ever fearful of capture by public order officials whose patrols are escalating.

A new law in the capital, which came into effect last month, imposes tougher penalties on the swelling army of homeless who sift through the detritus of the rich to earn enough to feed their families.

Jakarta’s unwanted are so far oblivious to the new crackdown, but they have long played cat-and-mouse with roaming officials.

Buyung, who works the streets with his wife and two-year-old in tow, used to work as a food vendor but went broke about five years ago. His story is typical of Indonesia’s burgeoning homeless.

“There’s no other job for me but to be a scavenger,” the 32-year-old migrant from Sumatra says while taking a break in a park, his wife lying on a filthy mat unfolded from the cart as their toddler plays barefoot.

“What I earn today is only enough to buy food. There’s nothing left for renting a room,” he says, adding this means the cart serves as home as well.

His wife and daughter sleep in the wood-and-tin contraption he bought for Rp300,000 (about US$30) a few years ago. He lies on a mat just outside – unless it rains, in which case they all huddle together.

Buyung earns about $2 a day. Plastic cups sell for up to Rp6,000 per kilogram; cardboard nets him Rp1,000 for a similar weight, while paper fetches just Rp500.

“Our cart is our life, as my family depends on it 100 percent,” he says.

To Jakarta’s bureaucrats, Buyung and his fellow scavengers are a blight on the capital, which already struggles with chronic snarled traffic, choking pollution and flash flooding after monsoon rains.

A spike in their numbers has forced harsher action against them, says Endang Murni, head of the administration’s public order division. She says she cannot estimate how many scavengers there are.

The homeless, including the families in carts, “are mushrooming as people live in economically far tougher times now,” Murni said.

Her office has quadrupled its number of public order agents – from 1,500 to 6,000 – since 2005 in a bid to snare the itinerants.

Nearly 16,000 people were snared on the streets in 2007 and forced to pay a fine of Rp50,000 or head to jail for a month.

Practically all paid the penalty and headed straight back to the streets, Murni says. But the latest law imposes a penalty of up to Rp20 million, or up to 60 days in jail.

“We need to give them sanctions that are a deterrent. This is so important for the city’s comfort, and public order,” she says.

Ibu Tati, a 54-year-old who has been scavenging for more than 20 years, has not heard of the new drive but recalls the humiliation of being captured in the past.

“My cart was demolished in front of me and I was brought to a dormitory designated for street people,” Tati says. Training homes aimed at teaching the scavengers new skills are often offered as an alternative to fines or jail.

Tati says she was kept in one for a month before authorities moved her to the city of Cirebon, in West Java, to work in the gardens of a government office.

But she fled back to Jakarta as soon as she could, preferring her freedom as a scavenger and seeing the capital as her home.

“It was difficult for me that time to restart my life, as I lost my most crucial possession,” she says, referring to her cart.

Nowadays Tati focuses on rubbish from office buildings during the week, and at weekends keeps an eye out for parties.

“I love a party. If any house has a party, I just wait there outside until the party is over to pick up the garbage.”

Buyung and his family have also been caught in the past.

“My daughter was only nine months old when public order officials took away our cart and all our belongings stocked inside,” he says, adding that he too did not know of the administration’s latest drive to get him off the streets.

Though he would rather not be collecting rubbish, Buyung defends his trade.

“Nobody wants to lead this kind of life,” he says. “But it’s far better than being a loser like a beggar. It’s more shameful – they don’t have any pride or make an effort in life.”

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