Tue, 08 Mar 2005

People skeptical about assistance program

Oyos Saroso H.N./Ruslan Sangadji, The Jakarta Post, Bandarlampung/Palu

Most people have probably seen the government-sponsored television ad showing a popular comedian talking about how the poor will benefit from the cut in the fuel subsidy, because the government will channel the money saved into programs that directly target those in need.

In the ad the comedian manages to convince his audience that the government's decision to slash the fuel subsidy will be good for them. In reality, though, many poor people are skeptical, with many assuming the money will end up in the pockets of the rich.

Nurhuda, a 45-year-old resident of Telukbetung Barat district in Bandarlampung, South Sumatra, said he did not expect to benefit from any of the programs the government said it would finance with money taken from the fuel subsidy.

As part of its public relations campaign to sell its fuel hike policy, the government said the majority of money taken from the fuel subsidy would go toward providing free education, health care and inexpensive rice for the poor, as well as for rural infrastructure projects.

After bad experiences with previous assistance programs for the poor, Nurhuda, a father of three, said he did not have too much hope for these latest programs.

"There have been lots of assistance programs, special market operations and rice for the poor, and I have never gotten anything from them even though I am very poor," Nurhuda said.

He once registered with the head of his village to receive subsidized rice intended for the poor, but his name was scratched off the list and replaced by someone who could afford to buy rice at market prices. Just like that.

"It's fine by me if it is the same as before and I don't get my share," said Nurhuda, who has not gone out to sea to fish for the last five months because of a diesel fuel scarcity.

There is uncertainty on the face of 54-year-old housewife Srundut, a resident of Gulak-Galik in Telukbetung Utara, Bandarlampung.

The mother of five earns a living selling pempek (fish dumplings). She is not getting her hopes up about the possibility of the government providing assistance for the poor.

"When my child was treated at a hospital, I had to pay the bill myself, no assistance whatsoever," she said.

Another housewife, Maryani, 39, a resident of Sumurbatu, said the government's plan gave her hope that her child, who had to drop out of school a year ago because she could not afford the school fees, would be able to return to class.

Her pedicab driver husband makes about Rp 650,000 (US$72) a month, which has to be stretched to cover all of the household expenses -- from daily meals to electricity.

"But I don't know whether we will get any assistance," said Maryani, who does laundry for her neighbors to make a little extra money.

The director of Lampung's Anti-Corruption Committee, Maya Ferlianti, said this skepticism was natural given the government's history of managing money intended for the poor.

"We have found lots of evidence of the heads of villages and subdistricts selling rice meant for the poor for their own profit. Several subdistrict heads have even been arrested for this," Maya said.

Indonesian Teachers Dignity Forum secretary Gino Vanoli said almost all of the money intended to assist poor students was at risk of embezzlement. "I predict the same thing will happen again because there is a lack of monitoring for this program," Gino said.

The head of Bandarlampung's education office, Zaini Nurman, has asked schools to involve members of the community in identifying students eligible for the scholarship program.

Gino said an independent monitoring team should be set up to ensure the money was used as it was intended, expressing fear that if monitoring was conducted only by related offices, it would open the door to corruption and nepotism.

According to data from health insurance company PT Asuransi Kesehatan in Bandarlampung, there are currently 1,561,717 poor people in Lampung who qualify for free medication from the company as part of the compensation programs.

Meanwhile, nationwide protests continue to be held in opposition to the fuel price increases.

In Palu, hundreds of university students clashed with the police while protesting the new policy in front of the Central Sulawesi provincial council on Monday. Four students were seriously injured and dozens of others were lightly injured.

The violence erupted after several students allegedly pelted officers with objects.

The assistant to Tadulako University's rector, Main Labaso, who led the protest, placed the blame for the incident on the police.

"The police violated their commitment to guard the protesters. Our protest was peaceful, so why were the students beaten," he said, adding that he did not believe any students pelted officers with objects.

Central Sulawesi provincial council deputy speaker Helmy Yambas, regretted the incident and promised to pay the injured students' medical bills. He said that before the violence began, council members and the students agreed to reject the fuel price hike.

Palu Police chief Adj. Sr. Comr. Guntur Widodo said the incident took place after protesters provoked the police by jeering and throwing things.

"Police officers are also human. If they are treated badly, they get upset," he said.