JAKARTA: Standing on the pedestrian bridge at the Semanggi interchange in the heart of Jakarta, dozens of officers from the Jakarta Public Order Agency kept a watchful eye on the busy streets below.
They were on the lookout for vendors who usually occupy the pavements in the afternoon, selling drinks and snacks to office workers and students on their way home.
But someone had clearly tipped off the hawkers, for there were no stalls to be seen that day. Normally, dozens of them would have lined up their carts and obstructed the walkways.
By law, it is illegal for street vendors across Indonesia to operate on pavements.
In Jakarta, a bustling metropolis with 1,600 public order officers serving a population of 9.6 million, random raids and patrols are conducted.
For survival, the errant traders rely on a reliable network of parking attendants and buskers who alert them of the presence of the uniformed team on those rare days when the city decide to enforce the law.
But there may be some good news for them soon - Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan wants to legalise street vendors in the capital.
While the Law on Road and Traffic bars anyone from disrupting the flow of pedestrians on pavements and pedestrian bridges, Mr Baswedan said there are other laws and regulations, like the Law on Small and Medium Enterprises, which permit vendors to operate on pavements.
“Pavements can serve more than one function, for pedestrians and other uses, and that is allowed under the Public Works Ministerial regulation,” the governor told reporters on Sunday (Sep 8) in defence of his proposal.
“We must not assume that pavements must be free from street vendors, that pavements are only for pedestrians.”
Mr Baswedan drew attention to the fact that major cities across the world allow street vendors to operate on pavements, with strict regulations in place.
“We are formulating a regulation (to allow street vendors to operate legally) now,” he said.
His proposal has sparked debates in Jakarta. Some welcomed the move, while others said it would be a nightmare for pedestrians to jostle for space with vendors, when there is a lack of infrastructure for pedestrians to begin with.
The proponents of the governor’s proposal argued that hawkers provide affordable food choices to the city dwellers. Allowing street vendors to legally operate can therefore boost the economy, they said.
A Twitter user pointed out that street vendors and pedestrians can co-exist in other countries and called for tighter regulations instead of an outright ban.
On the other hand, critics argued that permitting street vendors to occupy the pavements would put pedestrians' safety and convenience at risk.
“The government gets tax money from its people to build roads and pavements. The government has the responsibility to maintain pavements according to its function,” Twitter user Mochamad Arip wrote.
Data from the Ministry of Public Works showed that Jakarta only has 500km of pavements, compared to 7,000km of roads. Jakartans have long complained of how the pavements are mostly shoddily built and poorly maintained.
“Imagine if you allow street vendors to legally operate on pavements. Even when it is still illegal, vendors would occupy the entire width of the pavements. Legalising this would open a floodgate of vendors encroaching spaces meant for pedestrians,” Mr Alfred Sitorus of the Indonesian Pedestrian Coalition told CNA.
But the Jakarta governor said there will be specific pavements where vendors can operate, adding that narrow pavements will be vendor-free.
“We will establish the ground rules. Not all pavements will have to be shared by both pedestrians and economic activities. We will set places (where vendors would be allowed),” Mr Baswedan said.
He said the government will also limit the amount of space the vendors can occupy.
“Pavements will be divided. There will still be sections which are dedicated exclusively for pedestrians. We are formulating the regulation now."
LICENSED BUSINESSES FACE COMPETITION FROM ILLEGAL STREET VENDORS
In Jakarta’s commercial district Tanah Abang, vendors selling cheap clothes and knock-off shoes have almost completely overrun the narrow pavements, leaving pedestrians with only a tiny space to navigate.
Occasionally, the foot traffic comes to a standstill when passersby stop to check out the items on offer.
Mr Aspiracy Muda, who sells Muslim wear in a shopping mall, said the street vendors made it hard for people to access the malls.
“They don’t have to pay rent like us, so they can sell their goods for much cheaper. And they are the first sellers the customers see. That’s why sellers in malls or stores like us don’t support the governor’s proposal,” he told CNA.
Mr Muda remembered a time when the situation was so bad that the street vendors spilled onto roads, causing massive gridlocks.
Under former governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the street vendors were evicted and relocated to a market. But after Mr Baswedan became governor in 2017, one by one the street vendors reappeared, Mr Muda said.
At one end of Tanah Abang, the sidewalks are filled with vendors selling clothes, household goods and mobile phone accessories, while shops remain empty and shuttered.
Mdm Arfini, who goes by one name, said her nearby store is only used for storage while she sells Muslim dresses and headscarves on the pavement.
“Otherwise the street vendors would completely hide my store from view and I would lose customers,” she said.
Mdm Arfini said she would retreat to her store when public order officers come to raid the street vendors. “It is a cat and mouse game,” the 54-year-old said.
NO LEGAL BASIS: EXPERTS
When Mr Baswedan ran for office, legalising street vendors was one of his key campaign promises to the voters.
“Street vendors are small entrepreneurs. They are marginalised because they are under the threat of eviction. They must be helped and empowered. We don’t want street vendors evicted, but managed and regulated,” he said in 2017.
Urban planning expert Mr Nirwono Joga said Mr Baswedan risks breaking the Law on Roads and Traffic if he legalises street vendors.
“As long as the law is still effective, the Jakarta government must obey it. If you let (Jakarta break the law), other cities in Indonesia will follow and you can imagine how disorderly pavements would be.
"Street vendors would completely take over the pavements and pedestrians cannot walk safely and comfortably,” he told CNA.
“Even if the government sets boundaries and requirements, in practice it will be much more chaotic and difficult to control. Our street vendors never play by the rules,” he warned.
Mr Baswedan is also facing resistance in the Jakarta legislature, with lawmakers from both sides of the divide casting doubts on his proposal.
“The city punishes tax-paying store owners who will lose their income, while law-breaking street vendors are rewarded,” said Ms Ima Mahdiah, a politician from the opposition Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle.
“It would be unfair.”
Ms Zita Anjani of the National Mandate Party, a party within Mr Baswedan's coalition, urged the governor to proceed cautiously.
“The governor means well. The aim is to increase people’s welfare and we support that.
“But the governor must really study the plan and make sure that it does not break existing laws. And the governor must ensure that the vendors will not interrupt the pedestrian flow,” she said.
Mr Sitorus, a pedestrian rights activist, suggested the governor to convert unused spaces into street food instead.
“The government can also cooperate with office building owners to allow hawkers to operate at their premises after dark, or work with shopping malls to dedicate some of their space for street vendors,” he said.
“That way, the hawkers can operate without sacrificing the pedestrians’ needs.”
Legality aside, the governor's proposal comes as a relief for the illegal street vendors.
Mdm Ina Sutisna, who sells drinks at a park, said they risk losing all their belongings to the enforcement officers in raids that usually take place once or twice a month.
"I think the governor's plan is good. It would benefit people like us. We cannot afford to rent a kiosk or a store. We only sell drinks. How much can you make selling drinks?"
"At least give us a space to legally operate, but please ensure that there will be people there. I don't want to keep playing this cat and mouse game with the public order officers," she said.