As Ramadan Descends, Belt Buckles Are Tightened

LEGIAN/JAKARTA ~ Families across Indonesia are tightening their belts during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, as rising food and fuel prices limit spending power for the nightly festivities which break the daily fast.

The world’s most populous Muslim-majority country has seen a spike in the cost of food in the lead-up to the fasting month, putting pressure on families already hit hard by sharp rises in subsidized fuel prices.

Prices for essentials such as eggs, meat and cooking oil surged in the week leading up to the start of Ramadan on Monday, as people stocked up for the feasts which end the dawn-to-dusk fasting period.

Jakarta housewife Nina Handayani, 31, said her family would have to forsake traditional Ramadan treats so she could save money for basics like children’s clothes.

“No meat. No chicken dishes. Just vegetables. And old clothes for me,” she said.

“I’ve saved enough for the children’s new clothes. It may be hard times for us now but we won’t drag our children along.”

Mother-of-six Nena said that to break the fast every night, she used to offer a traditional desert made with palm sugar and coconut milk and flavored with banana, sweet potato or cassava.

“I used to serve dessert for my family to break the fast before we had the main meal consisting of rice. But as everything has become very expensive, we can’t afford it anymore,” she said.

“Our Prophet Mohammed advised us to break the fast with sweet things but I have to think rationally. It’s more important to have proper food on the table than sweets, so we can continue to perform the fast until the end of Ramadan.”

Inflation is hovering around 12 percent after fuel prices were hiked an average 28.7-percent in May to save the budget from a ballooning subsidy bill.

The fuel price hike was applauded by economists but triggered protests across the vast archipelago, giving a political edge to this year’s Ramadan as campaigning swings into gear for next year’s elections.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is seeking a second term in June’s polls but his popularity ratings have slumped in favor of his main rival, former president Megawati Sukarnoputri.

“The president doesn’t care about us. He only makes empty promises and causes suffering,” said street food seller Umi Lestari, 35, in Jakarta.

“What’s the point of protesting and holding strikes if prices don’t come down? We need better leaders.”

Lestari said she was spending Rp24,000 (US$2.50) more every month on cooking gas, or a quarter of her monthly earnings.

“Whatever profit I get now will be spent on cooking gas, when previously I could use the extra to buy clothing and snacks,” she said.

Her husband, Muhammad Padil, 34, drives a bemo, a three-wheeled transport vehicle. His daily earnings tumbled Rp200,000 to 120,000 a day after the government hiked fuel oil prices.

Families across Lestari’s neighbourhood of north Manggarai, a poorer Jakarta district, are in the same boat.

Her neighbor Suswanti, 36, said rising gas prices had crushed her hopes of reopening her food stall which she had to shut last year because she could no longer make ends meet.

The housewife and her three young children have been reduced to scouring Jakarta’s polluted streets for plastic bottles to sell.

“One kilo, Rp25,000. Very little,” she said.

“We skip breakfast and halve the usual portion for lunch and dinner. I have slashed my children’s pocket money and make them walk instead of taking the bus to school. If prices rise further, I may be forced to pull them out of school.”

Motorcycle taxi driver Mohammed Awi, 27, said he took home only about Rp10,000 a day, or Rp5,000 less than a year ago. He owes his landlord five months’ rent.

“To the rich, Rp5,000 is nothing but for poor people like us it’s a big deal. It’s the difference between eating and starving,” said his 26-year-old wife, Eti Nurhayati.

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