AN old truck laden with a mountain of confiscated pedicabs rumbles down Jalan Thamrin. The cargo will be loaded onto a barge at Tanjung Priok harbor and then unceremoniously dumped in the Indian Ocean. ``Becak make good home for fish,'' says a taxi driver with a wry smile.
The fate of the lowly becak (pronounced BAY-chawk) is the buzz of Jakarta now.
By April, the city's governor, Wiyogo Atmodarminto, has resolutely declared that this overcrowded metropolis of 8 million will be ``becak-free.'' Currently, the three-lane highways feeding Indonesia's capital are clogged each day by a beeping, pulsating mass of almost every known form of wheeled transport, from horse-drawn carts, pedicabs, and orange-domed three-wheeled Vespa scooters (known as bajaj) to millions of weaving motorcycles, minibuses, double-decker buses, trucks, and automobiles.
But progress, or a Darwinian sense of it, has led to a local ordinance declaring the pedicab driver persona non grata in Jakarta. In the interest of freer flowing traffic, logic dictates that the slowest moving vehicles (whose operators pay as little heed to traffic laws as most Indonesian drivers do) should be retired.
``Why is the becak driver the strongest man on Earth?'' is the riddle making the rounds at diplomatic soirees and roadside kaki lima (pushcart kitchens). The answer: ``Because one becak driver can hold up 50 cars.''
The more socially minded and image-sensitive say driving a becak is an inhumane occupation. Making draft horses out of people harks back to serfdom in a previous century. It's the sort of backward image a nation climbing the economic ladder does not want to project to visiting foreign investors.
Becak peddling is hard work. Becaks are single-geared, three-wheeled pedicabs with an iron frame weighing about 50 pounds before a passenger (or two or three) climbs aboard. (With a bit of coaxing, my becak driver agreed to dismount and let me have a go. You sit high to see over the cab. Turning is stiff and precarious. A bule (white man) at the helm of a becak drew snickers and hoots of amusement from the sidewalk gallery. Embarrassed, my driver quickly insisted I return to the passenger seat.) Even a small grade requires the becak driver to hop off and push his cargo. Often, idle youngsters by the roadside will assist in getting the becak up a hill.
The pedicab may be outmoded, but it's also an Asian institution. Feelings about its imminent demise run deep.
A recent survey by the Indonesian weekly newsmagazine Tempo showed that only 13 percent of respondents agreed the becak should be eliminated, and 81 percent disagreed with the program to remove the vehicles. Ninety-two percent felt it was not an inhumane occupation.
The survey results, says an Indonesian friend, probably run along class lines. Most Indonesians are poor and the becak is inexpensive transportation. The same Tempo survey found that about half of all becak drivers earn wages of US$1 to $2 per day. One quarter of them make as much as $2 to $3 during a 15-hour day.
The becak is a favored transport by women doing daily food shopping at poorer neighborhood markets in alley's too narrow for cars and buses. One elderly woman praises her becak driver for regularly carrying a sack of rice into her house - a service no bajaj driver would perform, she insists. Given such sentiments, its not surprising the becak elimination program has met with some resistance.
On Feb. 19, Governor Wiyogo announced that a new inexpensive, small, four-seat sedan would be built locally and designed to replace the becak, particularly its ability to navigate narrow streets.
Since 1985, nearly 75,000 pedicabs have been confiscated. But as the April deadline approaches, police raids are intensifying. An estimated 8,000 becaks are still at large. The Jakarta Post reports that one policeman has been killed and several injured in altercations between police and drivers. In February, some 300 becak drivers and owners held a rally in front of the House of Representatives offices to complain about being ``manhandled'' and to press for better retraining programs.
Former becak drivers fortunate enough to possess Jakarta city ID cards are being trained for new jobs. For example, the street smarts acquired over the years may be transferred to new professions. Last year, 500 drivers took a six-day training course and were given US$27 (about half a month's wage) to start their own door-to-door fruit and vegetable sales business. This year, the course in bread-cart vending has been a favorite among retrenched becak drivers. But most are opting to get a license to drive the motorized bajaj or the mikrolet (mini-bus). A few are taking the three-month course in motor mechanics.
Many becak drivers were once farmers who felt they could make a better living in the city. With their becak-peddling days over, and no city ID, they are being sent back to their respective villages with 5,000 rupiahs (about US$2.80) as compensation.
The rumblings of becak discontent are here. But government officials are intent that the ``Cak! Cak! ... becak!'' hail won't be heard much longer on the streets of Jakarta.
Recently Monitor writer David Scott traveled throughout Indonesia with other writers on a trip sponsored in part by Mobil Oil Company. In a six-part weekly series that continues today, he focuses on daily life in the Indian Ocean archipelago.
1. Impressions of Jakarta 2. The person-powered `becak' vehicles of Jakarta 3. Haggling for wares in an open-air market 4. Why Indonesians point with their thumbs 5. A visit with artist Kartika Affandi Koberl 6. Bali, a piece of heaven on earth