Sun, 23 Jan 2000

'Social workers' make money from damaged roads

By Kafil Yamin

BANDUNG (JP): For most people, potholes in the road are a major annoyance as you drive around them to avoid breaking an axle or chassis. To others, however, they are not so much an irritant as a way of making something resembling a meager income.

These people are more aggravating than the potholes themselves. For you must quickly hit the brakes to avoid them as they bend forward proffering charity boxes in several spots of the road that are damaged. It is futile getting mad because these street collectors are so concerned about the state of the roads that they fervently collect money from passing motorists to fix the damaged areas.

Pass through damaged spot where the boys -- none of them are of the opposite sex -- are collecting and take note of the road damage. A couple of months later, pass the same spot and the damage, you will see, is still there and there are no signs of it being repaired.

It is not instantly clear why these street fund-raisers are so commonplace nowadays. Everyday, drivers encounter them at annoying spots and give coins of Rp 100 or more. Drivers on the road all day perhaps shell out more than Rp 5,000, on top of parking fees.

It is not the money that matters so much to motorists. Not only do the fund-raisers take the comfort out of driving, they create a frustrating situation on the streets, frequently causing accidents.

"They do not hesitate to come forward with their charity boxes, and I have to immediately hit the brakes to avoid hitting them," said Deden, who drives from Margaasih to Rancaekek every day, and once ran into one of the fund-raisers with his car.

He is aware of road damage in several spots, but knows the money raised from passing vehicles is not used to fix the roads. "After more than three months, the damage is still there," he said.

Lately, fund-raising has been taking place at areas other than on damaged roads. Some "social workers", who do not have the good fortune of living near damaged roads, think of other ways to make money. Ever ingenious, they have come up with the idea of throwing sand and soil onto the road so that it looks damaged. Then they collect the cash.

In many parts of the outskirts Bandung, drivers find hundreds of these kind of spots. Fasten your seat belts, as the artificial and genuinely damaged roads lead to a bumpy ride indeed.

You may think this is all there is to road extortion, but alas there is more. For there are still other ways to make a quick buck.

Others construct fund-raising booths, to be used to collect money for the construction of mosques. Or so they say. Charity boxes are held up to passing motorists, and drivers "donate" anything from Rp 500 to Rp 1,000, wrongfully thinking they are doing their part as good Muslims.

"Please give us some money. Allah will repay your charity many times over!" they says through loudspeakers.

Don't be surprised, however, if after a few months, the construction of some of the mosques has not yet begun.

A street fund-raiser in Utama village, Aep Hendrayana, after refusing to say anything about his work, confessed to having damaged the road in his neighborhood. He also admitted that he shared the money with his fellow fund-raisers.

"It's just enough to buy the butts of cigarettes," he said.

He added that he did it because he had no job and that he took turns raising money with his friends. As he put it: "Things are arranged fairly ... we do not force drivers to give money," he said, justifying his actions.

But, for some, extortion money from motorists is fun. "We do it together and enjoy it. If you can make easy money, why not?" said Gunadi, a road collector in Kiaraconding district. He said no one cared and bothered him when he was on the street.

Not even the local administration.

The reluctance of officials to do something about street fund- raising is due to their limited authority. The public works ministry, which oversees road maintenance, thinks community initiatives should be taken to end the hindrance.

Many of the fund-raising activities are illegal and run by preman (hoodlums), but the public works office leaves it to the police to deal with.

"The problem arising from the activities are traffic congestion and disruption. We don't deal with such matters," an official of the Bandung public works office told The Jakarta Post.

The police, however, turn a blind eye to the activities of the hoodlums. "It's up to the community to fix damaged roads," said a police officer at Cimahi Police station. "Wrongdoings and misbehavior should be handled by the local (village) administration", he added.

Drivers believe the police are unwilling to get involved as they can't make any money out of it. "Why should the police be involved with such poor fund-raisers, it even causes them a lot of trouble," said Dzulkifli, a resident of the Margaasih housing complex.

"If two luxurious sedans, say a BMW and Mercedes, hit each other, the police will soon arrive on the scene. Such an accident brings a windfall to them, but broke fund-raisers?" he explained.

And the village administration pays no attention either. "It's much better for them to collect money rather than to fight and steal," said Maman Suhendar, a village official.

Local residents, however, are aware that some fund-raisers use the money to buy alcohol. After getting drunk, they often fight and steal.