Thu, 25 Dec 2003

The poor in 2003: The year of living more precariously

B. Herry-Priyono Driyarkara School of Philosophy Jakarta

This is how the draconian government in Jakarta failed to respect calls to display political virtue, even on the eve of Idul Fitri. On that special night, its demolition crews evicted roadside vendors in Mampang, Kebayoran Lama, Pondok Labu, Lebak Bulus and Pasar Minggu. These actions marked a continuation of a series of forced evictions to get rid of the poor from Jakarta. This has also been the fate of slum dwellers and other urban poor groups for years.

Sanitizing Jakarta from the poor? Will this take the form of poverty alleviation? No, it takes the form of uprooting the poor from the places where they live and from their sources of livelihood. In the past few years, the Islamic fasting month (Ramadhan) is usually a period of respite, but then the eviction rampages resume with even more intensity and brutality after Idul Fitri.

Why does it happen? Are they some illegal group that does not belong in Jakarta? Indeed, the law is one reason constantly used and abused to justify the evictions. When legal arguments are proven weak, the Jakarta authorities shift at will to using city cleanliness as the justification. When cleanliness as an apology goes bankrupt, they resort to using the term "public purpose" to justify the evictions. What is the real reason? In order to understand what's really taking place, we need to reveal the masquerade.

Let's start with the legal arguments. The issue of law in this country is a slippery one. If what the authorities mean by being legal is the holding of an identity card, as the authorities always insist, 73.2 percent of those uprooted by the evictions possess identity cards. If what the authorities mean is the length of stay, many of the evicted persons have been there for more than 20 years, the length of stay which gives the occupants some legal entitlements, as clearly stated by article 1963 of the Civil Code (and passim).

In the end, the issue of legal status can be boiled down to the issue of private property. It needs to be emphasized that occupying others' private land is an act of trespassing under the law of property. There are hardly any objections to such a commonsense notion. What are suspect are the following problems.

First, as is clearly stated by the Civil Code (article 1963, passim), occupying a piece of land for 20 years or more without any objection from the owner gives the occupant adverse possession, that is, the right to obtain title to the land, or what is commonly termed "squatters rights". He/she also has the right to be issued with title certificates. As discovered in a series of field investigations conducted by the Jakarta Social Institute (ISJ) and Jakarta Residents' Forum (FAKTA), many of the evictees have lived in the areas for uninterrupted periods spanning between 20 and 53 years, had identity cards and paid their taxes.

As Ms. Maria Sumardjono of Gadjah Mada University (Yogyakarta), an agrarian law expert, has rightly attested in a closed meeting of 15 academics concerned with the current wave of forced evictions (Nov. 11, 2003), the fact that no objections were raised against the occupation of the land during these periods constitutes "tacit consent" in legal terminology. No doubt, this remains the topic of a heated debate.

Secondly, the legal grounds employed become even more suspect when we zoom in closer on the legal status of the occupied land. As discovered by the ISJ and FAKTA, most of the land occupied by the victims consist of so-called "state land", i.e., land legally owned by the government. But since the government is nothing but a public agency whose raison d'etre is provided by its citizens, such land belongs to all citizens, rich and poor alike, as is merely being taken care of by the government. This notion may sound odd, but, as will subsequently become clear, it is here that we should look for the basic motive behind the evictions.

At a deeper level, there is no question that the government is obliged by constitutional duty to look after the nation's poor. This is more than simply abstract wordplay. It involves the extent to which the government uses the land entrusted to its care in carrying out its constitutional duty. Is this noble duty being performed by the government? Ask the ordinary people on the street and those are expert in this field, and what you will get is a chorus of negative answers. In addition, these eviction operations involve not only the use of force and violence, but also arson.

Is this statement a form of blackmail? The answer to this is in the negative. Even those who pursue the eviction plan with zeal have admitted employing such tactics. We may learn from the following admission from Mr. Toni Budiono, the director of the North Jakarta Public Order Office: "Burnings and 'scorched-earth' are among the stratagems used in the evictions. If necessary, the residences are burnt down to ease the process (Kompas, Nov. 2, 2001). If what is really taking place on the ground is alien to us, perhaps this is because we have not sufficiently accommodated this dark reality into our armchair conception about Indonesia's political economy.

Why should it be linked to the political economy issue? The reason is simple: because it is here that the main reason behind the evictions is to be found. We may start with the following question: "After the evictions, what will the land be used for?" Or, the question could also be stated in the following manner: "After the evictions, who will control this state land?"

We can simply ignore the statements repeatedly issued by the authorities -- that the land will be used "for public purposes" -- for, to speak metaphorically, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. As the pattern of evictions monitored over the past three years attests, most of the land in question has subsequently been handed over to private business interests.

Take one example, the eviction of 206 families who have been eking out a living from fishing in East Ancol, North Jakarta, since 1950. They had been in the area for 51 years at the time of their eviction in 2001. The land on which they lived was neither private land nor, strictly put, registered as state land. It was land composed of sedimentary deposits that was created by the "miracle" of natural geological formation; that is to say, this land did not exist previously. By violently evicting those 206 families, the Jakarta government snatched the land and gave it to a private firm, PT. Bahtera Sejahtera, for the construction of a Yacht Club and aquatic sports center. This case was no exception. This same thing happened with the eviction of 543 families in Kampung Beting, North Jakarta (the area was handed over to private firm PT. Karindo Karya), as well as the eviction that took place in Sunter Jaya, North Jakarta, in 2003.

The list could be extended further, and what it indicates is that the government's constitutional duty is being willingly abdicated to business interests. The power of money has supplanted constitutional duty. This merely reflects the general character of the current political economy in this country. As the evictions against the poor continue unabated, many obscene privileges are extended to business interests. The prime example is the free ride given to indebted bankers by means of a scheme whose name, the release & discharge scheme, is so alien to ordinary people. The scheme led to colossal losses on the part of the taxpayer amounting to Rp 75 trillion (IBRA Document, October 203).

If this is really how our economy is being run, then are a truly pathetic nation. We are pathetic in the sense that we continue to think that only modern big businesses has the capital resources needed to create an economic nirvana. While such a viewpoint is not entirely flawed, it is blind to the reality of the economic hardship so long endured by ordinary people in this country. With regard to an eviction operation that was to have been carried out in Surabaya, East Java, Mr. Andy Siswanto, an academic and urban planner involved in the case, carefully calculated the following costs. Since we have a penchant to shy away from assessing costs that involve psychological damage and the destruction of social fabric, let's just use the dryly measurable economic costs. The planned eviction of 1368 families would incur the loss of Rp 380 billion in people's economic assets and capital. Of course, these 1368 families do not belong to the economic elite but to the category called the "people's economy".

The evictions must be stopped and a rational alternative sought. There should be no evictions carried out without prior accommodation being provided -- accommodation that provides the space needed for economic survival. In political terms, it is high time for us to withdraw our support from any parties or politicians/powerholders that continue with the forced evictions. They no longer have any right to govern.

The poor also own the city, be it Jakarta or any other city. As poignantly asked by a child called Bara, 5, amid a violent eviction in Teluk Gong, North Jakarta, "Why are mere statues given so much space in Jakarta, while we are not?"

* The writer, an alumnus of the London School of Economics (LSE), works as a lecturer in and head of the Postgraduate Program at the Driyarkara School of Philosophy, Jakarta.