JAKARTA: Ms Ayu Rohaya was keeping a watchful eye on the four construction workers mending a portion of her neighbourhood’s footpath which unexpectedly collapsed several days ago.
Two of the workers had lit cigarettes sandwiched between their fingers. The 32-year-old mother of three wanted to make sure that the men would only smoke on a narrow concrete bridge just outside the neighbourhood’s perimeter, so as not to violate the area’s much-lauded rules.
In March 2017, Penas Tanggul, a poor congested neighbourhood in East Jakarta, became the first tobacco-free area in the capital, a noteworthy feat in a country where the price of a pack of cigarette is five times lower than in Singapore and tobacco advertising is still allowed.
Despite this achievement, the fate of the neighbourhood is under a cloud, as Penas Tunggul is actually an illegal settlement.
The reminders to be tobacco-free are everywhere: emblazoned at the gate of the riverside neighbourhood, on stickers pasted at people’s homes and in colourful murals adorning the area’s communal restrooms and retainer walls.
“We noticed that many women and children had respiratory problems because of all the men smoking,” Ms Rohaya told CNA of her neighbourhood’s decision to go tobacco-free.
People used to smoke inside their homes, she said, and along the narrow 1.5 metres alleyways where children played and pregnant women walked.
“Now that we made a commitment, everyone watches everybody else and makes sure that the pledge is honoured,” she said adding that violators face a small fine equivalent to the price of a pack of cigarettes.
It was a difficult process convincing people not to smoke in the neighbourhood where 120 families call home, recounted Mr Joko Sundoko, another resident.
“There was a lot of resistance, especially from heavy smokers. But we managed to convince people that they should at least stop smoking inside their homes where their wives and kids live."
"Slowly, we agreed that if we want to smoke we should do it in a smoking zone which we established just outside of the neighbourhood,” he said.
Mr Sundoko said over time, many people in Penas Tanggul stopped smoking entirely, including himself. “I started smoking when I was 12 years old, because people around me were smokers. I think the biggest reward of this initiative is seeing children and teenagers not picking up the habit," he said.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Indonesia has the highest rate of male smokers in the world at 75 per cent. There is also a growing number of children taking up the habit (from 7.2 per cent of under 18s in 2013 to 9.1 per cent this year).
Although the government acknowledged that the habit kills nearly 250,000 Indonesians every year, efforts to combat smoking in a country where tobacco generates more than US$10 billion in tax each year (10 per cent of its entire tax revenue) and employs 2.5 million workers, have been lacking.
Indonesia is the only Association of Southeast Asian Nations member state which has not ratified the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC).
The authorities have welcomed the smoke-free initiative. Health Ministry director for non-communicable disease prevention and control, Lily Sriwahyuni said: “Even though Indonesia is not an FCTC signatory, we agree on its content in spirit and continue to combat smoking.”
“Which is why we welcome the initiative from the residents of Penas Tanggul. We are trying to create more tobacco-free neighbourhoods like Penas Tanggul and work with local governments around the country to replicate the drive elsewhere.”
ILLEGAL SETTLEMENT STATUS
Straddling the flood-prone Cipinang River, the government has been trying for years to evict residents of Penas Tanggul, who are actually illegal squatters, to make way for a river normalisation project.
However, the plan was temporarily halted after residents succeeded in putting their neighbourhood on the map, transforming the once filthy and unsanitary slum into an area adorned with colourful houses and murals.
Tubagus Haryo Karbiyanto of the NGO, Jakarta Residents’ Forum which championed the transformation said residents took inspiration from Indonesia’s first “colourful village” Kali Code and Indonesia’s first “tobacco-free village” Umbul Harjo, both located in Yogyakarta.
Penas Tanggul was the first Indonesian neighbourhood to combine the two concepts, Mr Karbiyanto told CNA.
The transformation goes beyond the homes’ exterior. The residents have taken it upon themselves to be more conscious of the environment.
“The back of their homes used to face the river and as a result, residents polluted the river with their trash and excrement,” he said.
“Using Kali Code as an example, they flipped their homes’ orientation and turned the back of their homes into their front porches. This stopped residents from littering because now the river is technically their front lawn.”
Residents have been lobbying the government to formally recognise Penas Tanggul's achievements and promote it as a tourist destination.
The request has been met with resistance, particularly from the local legislature which argued that despite its achievements, Penas Tanggul is still technically an illegal squatter.
“The neighbourhood’s initiative is good. But we shouldn’t provide illegal settlers with incentives and recognition,” said lawmaker Bestari Barus.
“It will create more problems in the future. The government must return the area back to its original function, a riverbank free from dwellings.”
When asked by CNA on the plans for the neighbourhood, Jakarta provincial government’s secretary Saefullah, who goes by one name, would only say that the city hall is not making plans to demolish it for now. There are also no plans to formally recognise and preserve Penas Tanggul, he added.