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No-go for Jakarta's illegal traffic guides
Publication Date : 16-12-2013
With one hand on a whistle in his mouth, Beri Saidi waves on a stream of traffic across a set of railway tracks.
Occasionally, a driver slows down in the middle of the crossing to hand over some money to Beri, anywhere between 500 rupiah (US$0.04) and 5,000 rupiah.
After accepting a few tips, the 26-year-old abruptly blows his whistle and gesticulates frantically at motorists to stop while pulling down a red-and-white metal gate as a train approaches and blows its horn.
He is a "Pak Ogah", an informal traffic regulator mostly found at T-junctions, U-turns and railway crossings in Jakarta.
Armed with nothing more than a whistle and their daring, these Pak Ogah, who range from children to young people to elderly men, cash in on motorists desperate to manoeuvre through Jakarta's maddening traffic by providing a traffic regulating service for tips from grateful motorists.
This practice has been going on for decades. But a collision between a train and fuel truck last Monday that killed seven people and injured nearly 100 has cast a spotlight on these traffic regulators.
Eyewitness accounts suggested that the Pak Ogah at the Bintaro crossing, where the accident happened, contributed to the crash by not stopping the truck driver from driving across.
For years, the authorities have turned a blind eye to these illegal traffic regulators, who often add to traffic safety concerns. They do things such as letting motorists perform illegal U-turns, zip through a blocked crossing or park illegally.
Transport analysts say 70 per cent of the estimated 4,000 rail crossings in Indonesia are unmanned and fair game for the Pak Ogah.
In the capital of Jakarta alone, transport ministry records show that 92 of the 175 railway crossings are without barriers, although there are signals to tell motorists when to stop. It is usual to see motorists, cyclists and pedestrians ignore the signals, take a chance and dash through, often with the help of a Pak Ogah.
Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo has imposed a fine of 500,000 rupiah on those who make illegal crossings. His deputy, Vice-Governor Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama, wants to go further and has ordered a clean-up to rid the city of Pak Ogah.
"In Jakarta, if people don't have a job but have guts, then you'll see them 'prit prit' at the road crossings and pocket 250,000 rupiah in three hours," he told reporters, mimicking the sound of a whistle. "We have to catch them all, and clean this up."
At a rail crossing at Palmerah in south Jakarta, Beri told The Straits Times: "We can make up to 200,000 rupiah in one day, taking turns among whoever among us is free."
To tell if a train is coming, he glances at a signal light some 100m away. Once it turns amber and goes to green, it means a train is coming and he blows his whistle and tugs on a rope to bring down the metal barriers.
The primary school leaver said he has been unable to get a permanent job. In the past 12 years, he has done odd jobs such as fixing tyres at a car workshop and being a Pak Ogah.
"We have to put up with vehicle fumes and it can be hot. We also work in the rain," he said. "But motorists need us and we feel like we are guarding our village, which is on the other side of this crossing."
After about 30 minutes, his tips added up to 32,700 rupiah. "See this," he said, fishing out a 5,000-rupiah note. "Given by a schoolbus driver. May God bless his generous soul and those of the schoolchildren in there."
One of his cousins, Nizam, said all 12 Pak Ogah at this crossing are family members.
Gangs are also known to run these operations.
Since last Monday's accident, the transport ministry has pledged to review traffic safety at railway crossings and this could affect the Pak Ogah.
Ministry spokesman Bambang Ervan told The Straits Times: "Pak Ogah is a social phenomenon in Indonesia and, partly because of them, there are many more illegal crossings created for people and motorists to get through."
His ministry is building flyovers and underpasses for traffic and pedestrians to get across such tracks. Meanwhile, it plans to work with the Home Ministry to enforce traffic discipline at rail crossings and monitor motorists with the help of local chiefs.
But for all the talk of ridding Jakarta of the Pak Ogah, it is unlikely that they will disappear soon.
"They have been here for the longest time and there is some sort of informal understanding that they are allowed to operate. So as long as there is weak enforcement, they will be here," said Dahan, a train guard who has worked at the Bintaro crossing for 26 years.
*US$1 = 12,048 rupiah